Differential treatment of specific nationalities in the procedure

Bulgaria

Country Report: Differential treatment of specific nationalities in the procedure Last updated: 11/04/24

Author

Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Visit Website

Except for Syrian nationals, the recognition rates for all other nationalities of applicants in Bulgaria were below 8% on average over an extended period of time. Nationals from countries of origin such as Afghanistan and Türkiye were treated discriminatory, with their cases being overwhelmingly considered as manifestly unfounded and being examined in accelerated procedures.[1] In 2022 the situation of Afghan applicants improved. In 2023 however, their treatment again raised concerns relating to generalized bias and discrimination.

 In 2022, the overall recognition rate increased to 91% of all decisions on the merits. Although the refugee recognition decreased to 2%,[2] the subsidiary protection rate (humanitarian status) increased significantly reaching 89%.[3] The rejection rate decreased to 9% of all decisions issued on the substance of asylum claims.[4] These ratios appear clearly connected to the main countries of origin of asylum seekers entering Bulgaria, 77% of whom were from Syria (42%) and Afghanistan (35%).

 

Afghanistan

Between 2016 and 2021, Afghanistan has been the top country of origin of asylum applicants in Bulgaria. This changed in 2022, when the top country of origin became Syria. Yet, during this period of time, or arguably because of it, applications from Afghan nationals were arbitrarily considered as manifestly unfounded. They were predominantly channelled in the Accelerated Procedure and successively rejected, to the point that Bulgaria registered the lowest recognition rates for Afghans in Europe – 2.5% in 2016, 1.5% in 2017, 4% in 2019, and 1.8% in 2020. In the majority of cases, protection was granted following court decisions overturning the refusals of the asylum administration. The “striking discrepancy between the Bulgarian and the EU average recognition rate for Afghans” has been mentioned by the European Commission,[5] as well as jurisdictions in other Member States, as a matter of concern.[6]

During the second half of 2021, decisions on Afghan cases began to gradually change, also possibly due to the presence of some high-profile cases and increased claims regarding personal risk of persecution. As a result, the annual recognition rate of Afghan applicants reached a national record of 10%, although still far below the average EU recognition rate.

In 2022 for the first time in a decade the Afghan applicants were treated in a non-discriminatory way, with 49% overall recognition rate (14% refugee recognition rate and 35% subsidiary protection rate) and 51% rejection rate. However, in 2023 the rate dropped back to 14% overall recognition rate (5% refugee recognition rate and 9% subsidiary protection rate) and 86% rejection rate. Out of all 167 Afghan cases decided on their substance just 76% were dealt in accelerated procedure as manifestly unfounded, while in 2022 these were 20% of the decided cases; 86% in 2021, and 95% in 2020. Therefore, the more than half of them (68%)[7] continued to abscond before receiving a first instance decision, which was issued on the merits in just 3%[8] of the caseload.

 

Türkiye

Similar to the situation of Afghan asylum seekers, the applications for protection lodged by Turkish nationals were treated as manifestly unfounded and considered as originating from a “safe country of origin” for many years (from 2014 to 2021), notwithstanding the fact that the Bulgarian asylum system presently does not officially apply any of the safe country concepts.[9] Bulgaria has not adopted a list of “safe countries or origin” since 2001.[10] In the draft lists prepared as a result of the EC-Bulgaria 2023 Pilot project on fast asylum and return procedures[11] Türkiye was included both as a safe country of origin, and as a safe third country for Syrian nationals; however, these lists have not been officially adopted.

Moreover, despite settled case-law whereby the lodging of an application for international protection entitles the asylum seeker to apply for an immediate release from detention, many Turkish asylum seekers were kept in immigration detention centres for the duration of their entire asylum procedure, in violation of national law. They were subsequently subject to negative decisions and deported back to Türkiye. In such cases, the immigration police made every effort to prevent Turkish detainees from accessing lawyers and legal advice. This practice has been publicly recognised and acknowledged by the former Prime Minister,[12] and seemed to be the result of an informal political agreement between the Bulgarian and Turkish governments.[13] It was a long-standing practice of the Bulgarian authorities to prevent the Turkish nationals from access to procedure and international protection, as well as to expedite their return to the country of origin including, in several cases, in violation of the non-refoulement principle. In return, the Turkish authorities divert to a large extent the migratory pressure from the Bulgarian border to the Greek one.[14]  It was presumed that similar arrangements were reached mid-2023 as far as after the summer peak of 5,025 individuals who entered Bulgaria during August alone,[15] the number of the new arrivals gradually decreased to 546 individuals (-88%) in December 2023.[16]

Therefore, the rejection rate of Turkish asylum seekers over the years was increasing to reach 100% both in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, just one Turkish national was granted protection in Bulgaria. In 2021, there were little changes for Turkish applicants despite the altered political situation. If not immediately readmitted, Turkish asylum seekers still faced a 92% rejection rate.

In July 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Bulgarian authorities violated European human rights law by summarily returning a man to Türkiye, thus condemning the longstanding practice of denying Turkish refugees protection from persecution and handing them straight back to Türkiye.[17] On 8 July 2021 the MOI’s General Border Police Directorate, UNHCR and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee signed an annex to 2010 Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding including the readmission procedures in the scope of the national monitoring. The aim was to assist the third country nationals who wish to apply for asylum in Bulgaria to be safeguarded from refoulement perpetrated by the means of readmission, among whom the Turkish nationals were designated as a special target group.

In 2022, a gradual improvement in Turkish applicants’ treatment was registered. Just 33% of cases were dealt as manifestly unfounded in accelerated procedure, while in 2021 these were 83% of the decided cases. Even so, the overall recognition rate they enjoyed was quite modest, representing 16% of the total decisions (5% refugee status and 11% subsidiary protection), while the rejection rate remained significantly high (84% of the total). However, in 2023 their treatment once more deteriorated – 100% rejection rate with 58% refused in accelerated procedures as manifestly unfounded claims[18]. It might have a relation to the renewed assistance by the Turkish authorities to prevent the migratory pressure on the Bulgarian border in the second half of the year (see above in this paragraph).

 

Iraq

For many years Iraqi applicants enjoyed relatively fair assessments and an overall recognition rate ranging between 40% to 55% with respective refusal rate variations.[19] In 2017, however, their recognition dropped drastically. After some fluctuations in the following years, for 2021 it could be said that the situation further deteriorated, as their overall recognition rate dropped to 13% (8% refugee status, 5% subsidiary protection), corresponding to 87% rejection rate. In general, the arguments in the negative decisions of both the SAR and the Courts refer to the defeat of ISIS and to improvements in the safety and security across the country’s conflict areas and war zones. Claims by applicants from Central and Southern Iraq are considered manifestly unfounded in general. In 2022, the situation changed and Iraqi applicants enjoyed 45% overall recognition (13% refugee recognition and 32% subsidiary protection rates) with a 54% rejection rate. However, in 2023 the recognition rates dropped as low as 10% overall recognition (2% refugee recognition and 8% subsidiary protection rates) with a 90% rejection rate. Moreover, it was publicly recognised that Bulgaria has been exploring possible diplomatic avenues to increase the possibility of both forced and voluntary returns and is in a process of consultation for concluding a Memorandum of Understanding with Iraq.[20]

 

Syria

Between 2014 to mid-2015, the SAR applied the so-called prima facie approach to assessing Syrian applications for protection as “manifestly well-founded”. This approach is no longer applied.

Nevertheless, in 2023, Syrians continued to be the nationality with the highest recognition rate, reaching 97% overall – out of which 1% concerned the granting of refugee status and 96% the granting of the subsidiary protection, with just 3% rate of rejection. In 2023, out of 12,416 Syrian applicants, who submitted asylum claims in Bulgaria, nearly 46% (5,759 individuals) had their decisions issued within the duration of the year.  31%[21] absconded prior their first instance decision to be issued.

 

Other nationalities

Applications of nationals from certain countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Bangladesh, Myanmar-Burma, and Tunisia are treated as manifestly unfounded with zero recognition rates, and 99.9% in the case of applicants from Morocco. In the majority of the cases for these nationalities, the status determination is conducted under an Accelerated Procedure.

 

 

 

[1] AIDA Country Report on Bulgaria – 2021 update, 23 February 2022, Differential treatment of specific nationalities in the procedure.

[2] Previous refugee recognition rates: 4% in 2021; 13% in 2020; 13% in 2019; 15% in 2018; 14% in 2017; 25% in 2016; 76% in 2015; 69% in 2014.

[3] Previous subsidiary protection rates: 57% in 2021; 47% in 2020; 15% in 2019; 20% in 2018; 18% in 2017; 19% in 2016; 14% in 2015; 25% in 2014.

[4] Previous rejection rates: 39% in 2021; 39% in 2020; 71% in 2019; 65% in 2018; 68% in 2017; 56% in 2016; 10% in 2015; 6% in 2014.

[5] European Commission, Measures for improvement of the Bulgarian asylum system, 6 July 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2EudWMH, 7.

[6] See e.g. (Switzerland) Federal Administrative Court, Decision E-3356/2018, 27 June 2018; (Belgium) Council of Alien Law Litigation, Decision No 185 279, 11 April 2017.

[7] Source, SAR: 6,205 terminated procedures out of all 9,156 Afghan applicants pending in 2023, of whom 5,906 applied in 2023 and 3,250 were pending from 2022.

[8] 167 decisions on the merits out of all 6,372 decisions taken with respect to Afghan applicants in 2023.

[9] Bulgaria has not adopted a list of “safe countries or origin” since 2001; the last national annual lists were adopted with Decision №205/19.04.2000 of the Council of Ministers, in which Turkey was not enlisted as a safe country of origin nor as a third safe country.

[10] The last national annual lists were adopted with Decision №205/19.04.2000 of the Council of Ministers, in which Türkiye was not enlisted as a safe country of origin nor as a third safe country.

[11] European Commission, Reporting on progress made on the Pilot Project for fast asylum and return procedures with Bulgaria, available at: https://bit.ly/3TK51xN.

[12] Businessinsider, ‘Strasbourg Court Quizzes Bulgaria over Gullenists Extradition’, 25 April 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2S0ZPGU.

[13] Businessinsider, ‘Turkey’s plan to flood Europe with millions of refugees is a real and dangerous threat, officials warn’, 11 October 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/31szogj.

[14] Offnews, The Turkish Ambassador promised to sustain the migrant pressure towards Bulgaria at a zero level, 3 May 2020, available in Bulgarian at: https://bit.ly/397W2Ph.

[15] MOI statistics, December 2023, available in Bulgarian at: https://bit.ly/48C57wC.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ECtHR, D v. Bulgaria (application №29447/17), Judgement of 20 July 2021. See also: ecchr.eu, ‘European Court of Human Rights: Bulgaria’s pushback practice violates human rights’, 20 July 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3niDVyf.

[18] SAR, reg. No. №РД05-31 from 15 January 2024.

[19] For example, in 2015: 22% refugee status, 20% subsidiary protection; 2016: 33% refugee status, 10% subsidiary protection.

[20] European Commission, Reporting on progress made on the Pilot Project for fast asylum and return procedures with Bulgaria, available at: https://bit.ly/4bTun4k.

[21] Out of 23,601 Syrian applicants dealt in 2023 (12,416 applied in 2023; 11,185 pending from 2022) the procedure was terminated with respect to 7,408 applicants due to absconding.

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection
  • ANNEX – Transposition of the CEAS in national legislation