Applicants who are children, unaccompanied children, disabled, elderly, pregnant, single parents taking care of underage children, victims of trafficking, persons with serious health issues, psychological disorders or persons who suffered torture, rape or other forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence are considered as individuals belonging to a vulnerable group.
Screening of vulnerability
Until the end of 2020, the law did not envisage any specific identification mechanisms for vulnerable categories of asylum seekers, except for children. The identification of vulnerability was mainly stated to be mainstreamed in the training of caseworkers, but special trainings are rarely provided. However, at the end of 2020, amendments to the law introduced a mandatory vulnerability assessment and recommendations, as well as an obligatory referral of vulnerability reports to the case workers in order to carry out a needs assessment and individual support plan which would be attached to asylum seeker’s file. The implementation of these amendments remains to be seen in practice.
Several initiatives on vulnerability were undertaken in previous years. In 2008, the SAR and UNHCR agreed on standard operating procedures (SOPs) to be followed with respect to treatment of victims of Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV). These SOPs were never applied in practice, however. A process for the revision of the SOPs has been pending since the end of 2013, which also aims to include new categories or vulnerable groups. However, as of 31 December 2021, the SOPs revision was still not finalised nor adopted by the SAR.
In April 2017, the national expert working group, headed by the State Agency for Child Protection developed a set of SOPs addressing the protection needs of all categories of unaccompanied children in Bulgaria, both migrant and asylum seekers. In May 2017, UNICEF communicated a concept for the establishment of interim care facility for unaccompanied children. Although these two documents were approved in July 2017 by the National Child Protection Council, nothing has been done by the government to forward the process. As of 31 December 2021 no SOPs whatsoever were implemented in practice.
Against this backdrop, BHC, UNICEF and UNHCR worked together with the Ministry of Interior on amendments of the primary and secondary immigration legislation. These amendments aim at creating a legally binding referral mechanism, as well as a new procedure allowing for the regularisation of rejected and migrant unaccompanied children until they reach adulthood, with a possibility for an indefinite extension after it on humanitarian grounds. However, these amendments do not address the lack of identification mechanism of vulnerability at an earlier stage of the procedure and do not apply to all other categories of persons with special needs.
Given that the screening of persons with special needs was carried out in a fragmented and non-systematic way and lacked timely intra-institutional exchange of information, identification and referral, EASO also cooperated with Bulgaria in order to improve the capacity to identify and refer vulnerable applicants and to improve exchange between relevant institutions. EASO’s Special Support Plan to Bulgaria was originally in place from December 2014 until June 2016, but was extended until 31 October 2018. The identification and referral mechanism was set to build on the Quality tool for the Identification of Persons with Special Needs (IPSN). The SAR affirms the tool to be put in use, but in practice the vulnerability assessment is implemented sporadically and collectively rather than regularly and individually.
In 2018 the SAR adopted new internal rules of procedure which foresee that, if the applicant is considered as a vulnerable person or as having special needs during the registration or primary medical examination, the SAR social experts have to conduct needs assessment and develop an individual support plan. The new rules foresee that these two documents have to be added to the personal file to enable the case worker to take them into account when examining the application for international protection. These activities have to be implemented also in the cases when the vulnerability or the special needs are established at a later stage of the asylum procedure.
Additionally, a new early identification questionnaire was established for applicants who experienced traumatising experiences in order to determine their special needs and to facilitate the referral to adequate psychological or medical care. In many reception shelters however, and mostly in Sofia, group consultations continue to be applied to new arrivals in order to identify their potential medical or social issues.
In 2021, needs assessment have been conducted in 145 out of 350 cases (i.e. in 41% cases) when vulnerability or special needs were actually established. However the needs assessment and the support plans were actually added to the asylum seeker’s personal file only in 9% of these cases (32 cases). This practice was considerably better with respect to unaccompanied asylum seeking children where in 54% of the cases the needs assessment were found in the children’s files. However unaccompanied children’s files continued to lack the mandatory social report by the respective statutory child protection service from the Agency for Social Assistance. It has been confirmed that these reports are prepared in practice, but only a very few are shared with the case workers. The social reports, if properly prepared and communicated, could play a vital role not only in the asylum procedure, but also after it to outline the measures which need to be taken with respect to the child depending on the outcome of the procedure – rejection or recognition. As a result many unaccompanied children often remain after their recognition for quite significant periods of time in SAR reception centers instead of being referred to child care services or facilities.
This moderate improvement of vulnerability identification mechanism in 2020 resulted in a notable increase in the absolute number of asylum seekers formally recognised to have special needs or vulnerabilities. While this concerned 179 asylum seekers in 2016, 122 asylum seekers in 2017, 99 asylum seekers in 2018, 797 asylum seekers in 2019, and, 1,259 in 2020; the number rose to 3,928 asylum seekers considered as vulnerable in 2021 (35% of all new applicants). However it has to be noted that 3,172 of them were unaccompanied children, i.e. cases where the vulnerability identification is straightforward and almost automatic as it derives from the child’s statement about his or her age, or from the identity documents, if available.
The SAR collects statistics on the number of asylum seekers identified as vulnerable at the end of any given month rather than cumulative data on the number of vulnerable persons applying for asylum in a given year. At the end of December 2021, the following groups were identified among asylum seekers:
|Asylum seekers identified as vulnerable in Bulgaria: 2017-2021|
|Category of vulnerable group||end 2017||end 2018||end 2019||end 2020||end 2021|
|Accompanied children||not included||not included||207||326||561|
|Persons with chronic or serious illnesses||20||19||13||42||52|
|Persons with serious psychiatric issues||0||0||8||24||12|
|Victims of physical, psychological or sexual violence||5||6||3||2||3|
|Other (LGTBI)||not included||not included||not included||not included||1|
NGOs continue to play key role in early identification and assessment of applicants’ vulnerability and their referral and according treatment. Organisations specialise in specific groups and issues, namely: poverty, destitution and social inequality (Red Cross; Council of Refugee Women, Caritas Sofia); health issues and disabilities (Red Cross); mental and psychological problems (Nadya Centre, replacing ACET which ceased activities at the end of 2016) and unaccompanied children (Bulgarian Helsinki Committee).
Age assessment of unaccompanied children
The caseworker is not obligated to request an age assessment unless there are doubts as to whether the person is a child. In practice, age assessment is used only to rebut the statements of asylum seekers that they are under the age of 18.
The law does not state the method of the age assessment which should be applied. As a rule, the wrist X-rays method is applied systematically in all cases, based on the assumption that this method is more accurate than a psycho-social inquiry. The Supreme Administrative Court, however, considers this test as non-binding and applies the benefit of the doubt principle, which is also explicitly laid down in the LAR.
The age assessment cannot be contested by means of a separate appeal to the one lodged against a potential negative decision. Therefore, if a positive decision is issued, but the age is wrongly indicated to be 18 years or above, it cannot be appealed on that account as a part of the status determination process and the child granted the protection will be treated as an adult. The sole legally available option in such case is to initiate lengthy and usually costly civil proceedings to establish the actual age, but unless documentary or other irrefutable evidence is provided these proceedings are doomed to failure.
In 2021, the SAR conducted age assessments in 46 cases, in 37 of them (80%) concluding applicants to be adults. The monitoring of the status determination procedures demonstrated that the SAR continues to conduct age assessment by means of X-ray expertise of the wrist bone structure and without any evidence of prior consent by the children’s representatives. If the children are considered to be of age they are not appointed statutory municipality representatives to assist them to contest the refusal of their asylum claims nor of their age assessments. Reports from medical organisations consider the X-ray as invasive but, more importantly, inaccurate with an approximate margin of error of 2 years.
In 2019, an expert group representing both governmental and non-governmental organisations was established to create a national age assessment procedure based on a multidisciplinary approach. The aim is also to lay down some basic legal safeguards to be applied by asylum, immigration and/or other administrations that request age assessment in practice. Some of these legal safeguards were thus included by the SAR to its LAR amendments proposal. The draft methodology on age assessments was finalised and referred for adoption to the government. However, mainly due to COVID-19 pandemic the national legislative agenda was significantly re-directed, which prevented the endorsement of the draft. Thus, it was still pending as of 31 December 2021.
 §1(17) Additional Provisions, LAR.
 Article 30a LAR.
 Standard Operating Procedures on sexual and gender-based violence, Exh. No 630, 27 February 2008.
 UNHCR, SGBV Task Force, established on 15 February 2014.
 Article 28a Regulations for Implementation of the Law on Aliens in the Republic of Bulgaria (LARB Regulations), State Gazelle (St.G.) №34/2019, enforced on 24 October 2019.
 Article 63k and 63l LARB Regulations, St.G. №23/2019, enforced on 26 November 2019.
 EASO, Special support plan to Bulgaria – Amendment No 3, 27 October 2017, available at: https://bit.ly/2U58pCF; ‘EASO successfully completes its special support in Bulgaria’, 27 November 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2S9FwUQ.
 SAR, Internal Rules of Procedure for assessing and granting international protection, adopted on 17 December 2018. See also: Article 29 SAR Internal Rules of Procedure; Article 30(2) SAR Internal Rules of Procedure.
 Early Identification and Needs Assessment form (ФИОН), Individual Support and Referral Plan form (ФИПП) and Social Consultation form (ФСК).
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2021 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, 31 January 2022.
 SAR, Exh. No. РД05-26/14.01.2022.
 Article 61(2) LAR.
 Supreme Administrative Court, Decision No 13298, 9 November 2009.
 Article 75(3) LAR.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2021 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, 31 January 2022.
 Doctors of the World, Age assessment for unaccompanied minors, 28 August 2015. See also UNHCR, UNICEF and International Rescue Committee, The way forward to strengthened policies and practices for unaccompanied and separated children in Europe, July 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2BHGxLo.