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
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. The revision of SGBV SOPs ended in December 2021 with their formal adoption by the SAR. However, they were neither communicated to the field SAR staff, nor implemented in practice ever since.
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 2022 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.
EUAA, formerly – 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).
In the end of 2020, amendments to the law introduced a mandatory vulnerability assessment implemented by the SAR social experts with their vulnerability reports and recommendations referred to the case workers in order these circumstances to be taken into account in the decision-taking process. SAR social expert are also obligated to carry out a needs assessment and propose individual support plans which have to be also attached to asylum seeker’s file. The SAR internal 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. 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, an early identification questionnaire was created 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 2022 the overall lack of due vulnerability assessment and identification remained the most significant omission during the asylum procedure. The SAR’s social experts attended 67% of the registrations of asylum seekers. Out of them 28% related to cases of unaccompanied children. Only in 18% of all these cases the files of vulnerable asylum seekers contained vulnerability identification and needs assessment, and only in 7% of them the files contained an attached support plan. In none of these cases (0%) the established vulnerability was taken into account in the first instance decision. In the remaining 33% of the cases the registration of asylum seekers was carried out without the presence of a SAR social expert and without any guarantees for early identification of their vulnerabilities, if such existed. Thus, in practice the vulnerability assessment is still missing in 33% of the monitored cases. Additionally, needs assessment as well as planning and provision of support measures with respect to applicants with identified vulnerabilities are carried out yet sporadically than systematically.
However, unaccompanied children’s files continue in many cases to lack the mandatory social report by the respective statutory child protection service from the Agency for Social Assistance (ASA). It has been confirmed that these reports are prepared in practice, but in the overwhelming majority of the cases they are not 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. Such mandatory social reports with needs assessment in 2022 could be found just in 24% of the monitored children’s files. Moreover, only 1 of these reports contained a proper risk assessment, while the rest were purely formal.
Although still moderate, the efforts made for the vulnerability identification resulted in a notable increase in the absolute number of asylum seekers formally recognised to have special needs or vulnerabilities. While this concerned 797 asylum seekers in 2019; 1,259 in 2020, and 3,928 asylum seekers in 2021, the number rose to 5,482 considered as vulnerable in 2022 (27% of all new applicants). However it has to be noted that 3,348 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 2022, the following groups were identified among asylum seekers:
Asylum seekers identified as vulnerable in Bulgaria: 2017-2022
|Category of vulnerable group||2017||2018||2019||2020||2021||2022|
|Accompanied children||not included||not included||207||326||561||1,793|
|Persons with chronic or serious illnesses||20||19||13||42||52||72|
|Persons with serious psychiatric issues||0||0||8||24||12||15|
|Victims of physical, psychological or sexual violence||5||6||3||2||3||5|
|Other (LGTBI)||not included||not included||not included||not included||1||2|
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 2022, the SAR conducted age assessments in 33 cases, in 5 of them (15%) concluding applicants to be adults, while in 2021 these were 80% of conducted age assessments. 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. 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 2022.
 §1(17) Additional Provisions, 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.
 Exh. No.СД-172/и/23.12.2021 approved with resolution by SAR Chairperson.
 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.
 Article 30a LAR.
 Early Identification and Needs Assessment form (ФИОН), Individual Support and Referral Plan form (ФИПП) and Social Consultation form (ФСК).
 SAR, reg. №РД05-40 from 16 January 2023.
 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.