Access to the territory and push backs



Bulgarian Helsinki Committee

Access of asylum seekers to the territory remains difficult. In the period of 2015-2016, the national policy continued to fail to make a difference between asylum seekers and irregular migrants. No institutional or practical arrangements or measures exist to ensure a differentiated approach that gives access to the territory and protection for those who flee from war or persecution.

The most serious concerns raised by UNHCR and many national and international human rights and refugee-assisting organisations are with regard to the often-used practice of indiscriminate push backs by authorities.1 Various groups of asylum seekers reported throughout these two years that the Bulgarian border police, together with the mixed patrols deployed along the land border with Turkey, pushed them back into the Turkish territory not only from the border line, but also from inland border areas and in numerous cases, with Frontex guards witnessing the event. Many incidents, including deaths, were reported throughout 2015-2016, including by the press and media.

On 15 October 2015, the 19-year-old Afghan national Ziahullah Vafa was shot to death near the Bulgarian-Turkish border when the group he travelled with was intercepted by a border police patrol.2 The circumstances of the incident established in a parallel field assessment by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) appeared radically different from those publicly stated by the government and prosecutor offices.3 Nevertheless, in June 2016 the Burgas Regional Prosecutor discontinued the criminal investigation against the border policeman who shot the fatal bullet ruling out the death as “an accidental act”.

On 28 January 2016, UNHCR reported to be seeking further details after being alerted about the deaths of two Afghan nationals, who apparently have died of cold while trying to cross into Serbia from Western Bulgaria.4

On 7 February 2016 a girl aged 15 and a woman aged 30, both Iraqi nationals of Kurdish origin, deceased of hypothermia near the Bulgarian-Turkish border in the area of Malko Tarnovo, allegedly caused by the push back to Turkey the night before by the border police patrol who made the group they have travelled with to cross a local stream at temperatures below zero degrees Celsius.5 On 25 March 2016 a family couple from Iraq who were intercepted while hiding in a truck at Lessovo border checkpoint complained before the BHC field staff that one of the border policemen used a taser against them, despite the fact the use of such devices is not allowed during regular border checks.6

On 18 November 2016, the BHC reported to have received another 33 reports of robbery, physical violence and degrading treatment of asylum seekers by policemen for the period between May and September 2016.7  According to the reports, at least 600 people are affected but the actual numbers are probably higher. The data is based on BHC’s systematic border monitoring, including interviews with asylum seekers, which the organisation performs as part of its official agreement with authorities. The majority of received reports (80%) concerned the seizing of cash, valuables or even food the asylum seekers carried without a proper protocol being prepared by the police authorities. There were individual reports about inappropriate treatment by the police such as rude language, setting personal belongings on fire and strip searches. A significant share of the reports by asylum seekers (45%) concern physical violence including knocking to the ground, kicking, beating people with batons and, in one case, a handgun grip. In 6 cases, police dogs were used during the arrest for intimidation, which resulted in one case of a dog bite. In several other cases the policemen used warning shots; shooting in the air.

On 13 January 2017, UNHCR voiced concern regarding an incident of two Iraqi men found dead near the Bulgarian-Turkish border, reportedly succumbing to cold and exhaustion. Earlier in the year, the body of a Somali woman was also found by the authorities.8

As a consequence of these practices, compared to 2015, a sharp 45% decrease in apprehended irregular third-country nationals can be witnessed. Out of those, 17,549 individuals applied for asylum at border and immigration detention facilities.9 In total, the SAR registered 19418 asylum applications in 2016.10

Apprehension of irregular entry or presence: 2015-2016





National entry border




National exit border












Source: Ministry of Interior, Migration Statistics December 2015:; Migration Statistics December 2016:

  • 1. See e.g. UNHCR, ‘UNHCR alarmed at the plight of refugees and migrants at Bulgaria borders’, 28 January 2016, available at:; Human Rights Watch, ‘Bulgaria: Pushbacks, Abuse at Borders’, 20 January 2016, available at:
  • 2. Euronews, ‘Suspected Afghan immigrant dies after being shot by border police’, 16 October 2015, available at:
  • 3., ‘Conflicting Stories after Refugee Shot Dead by Bulgarian Police’, 26 November 2015, available at:
  • 4. UNHCR, ‘UNHCR alarmed at the plight of refugees and migrants at Bulgaria borders’, 28 January 2016, available at:
  • 5. Fakti, ‘Дете и жена мигранти са починали от студ край Малко Търново’,, 7 February 2016, available in Bulgarian at:
  • 6. BHC, Monthly monitoring report: March 2016.
  • 7. BHC, ‘BHC calls on authorities to investigate reports of systemic human rights violations regarding refugee access to territory and international protection’, 18 November 2016, available at:
  • 8. UNHCR, ‘Refugees and migrants face high risks in winter weather in Europe’, 13 January 2017, available at:
  • 9. BHC, Monthly monitoring report: December 2016, 10 January 2017.
  • 10. Source: State Agency for Refugees.

About AIDA

The Asylum Information Database (AIDA) is a database managed by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), containing information on asylum procedures, reception conditions, detenti