General (scope, time limits)
The LAR sets a 6-month time limit for deciding on an asylum application admitted to the regular procedure. The LAR requires that, within 4 months of the beginning of the procedure, caseworkers draft a proposal for a decision on the asylum application concerned. The asylum application should firstly be assessed on its eligibility for refugee status. If the answer is negative, the need for subsidiary protection on the account of a general risk to the applicant’s human rights should also be considered and decided upon. The interviewer’s position is reported to the decision-maker, who has another 2 months for consideration and decision.
If evidence is insufficient for taking a decision within 6 months, the law allows for the deadline to be extended for another 9 months, but it requires the whole procedure to be limited to a maximum duration of 21 months. Determination deadlines are not mandatory, but only indicative. Therefore, even if these deadlines are exceeded, this does not affect the validity of the decision.
In 2022, the general decision-making 6 months deadline was observed in 100% of the cases, leaving no case with prolonged determination duration. According to the SAR, the average duration of asylum procedures on the merits ranges from 3 to 6 months, including for nationalities such as Syria, and Afghanistan.
While the number of asylum applications has been constantly decreasing from 2015 to 2019, the percentage of already registered asylum seekers who abandoned their asylum procedures in Bulgaria remained high; reaching 80% to 90% of all decisions up until 2019. This tendency reverted in 2020 when the number of the new arrivals increased for the first time in four years and reached a total of 3,525, but the asylum seekers who abandoned their procedures decreased to 39% of all decisions and 22% of all caseloads. In 2021 and 2022, the number of new arrivals continued to increase, reaching a total of 10,999 asylum seekers (+212% increase) in 2021 and 20,407 asylum seekers (+55% increase) in 2022.
The backlog of pending cases continued to significantly increase from 2,021 cases in 2020, 7,556 cases in 2021 to more than 8,000 cases in 2022. Many of these cases have been delayed by 5 to 7 months beyond the legally set deadline. Of these, 4,700 files had been pending with decisions drafted and ready to be issued in cases mainly relating Syrian applicants. During the period January – March 2022, the SAR issued a total of 2,152 decisions, of which 16 decisions granting refugee status, 789 decisions granting humanitarian status, 87 refusals of international protection and 1,621 discontinuations of the procedure, mainly due to absconding. Thus, in the first quarter of the year, the SAR issued 837 decisions monthly on average. From mid-April to mid-May, the SAR did not issue decisions due to a hacker attack against its database. After that during the period May – December 2022 the SAR issued 16,780 decisions, of which 84 decisions granting refugee status, 3,485 decisions granting humanitarian status, 358 refusals of international protection and 12,853 discontinuations of the procedure, mainly due to absconding. It represented a 667% increase in comparison with the first quarter, or 2,097 decisions monthly on average. The average length of the procedure in the second half of the year decreased to 6 months.
46% (14,474 persons) of all 31,592 asylum seekers with pending proceedings in 2022 abandoned their procedures in Bulgaria. This was a significant increase compared to 26% in 2021, 39% in 2020, but still lower than 83% in 2019. The usual reasons motivating asylum seekers to abandon their asylum procedures in Bulgaria and abscond were the congested procedures, low recognition rated for some nationalities as well as poor reception conditions. Although for the first time in a decade the Afghan applicants did not register a recognition rate significantly lower than the EU-average, with 49% overall recognition rate (14% refugee recognition rate and 35% subsidiary protection rate) and 51% rate of rejection, the vast majority of them (95%) continued to abscond before their first instance decision, which was issued on the merits in just 0.7% of the caseload.
Out of the 19,340 decisions taken, 74% of asylum procedures were terminated (discontinued) in absentia:
|First instance SAR decisions on asylum applications: 2022|
Prioritised examination and fast-track processing
Prioritised examination is applied neither in law nor in practice in Bulgaria, although a specific procedure is applied with respect to Subsequent Applications.
After registration is completed, a date for an interview is set. The law requires that asylum seekers whose applications were admitted to the regular procedure be interviewed at least once regarding the facts and circumstances of their applications. The law requires that the applicant be notified in due time of the date of any subsequent interviews. Decisions cannot be considered in accordance with the law if the interview is omitted, unless it concerns a medically established case of insanity or other mental disorder. In practice, all asylum seekers are interviewed at least once to determine their eligibility for refugee or subsidiary protection (“humanitarian status”). Further interviews are usually only conducted if there are contradictions in the statements or if some facts need to be clarified. Amendments in 2020 extended the opportunity to gather expert opinions, including on age, gender, medical, religious, and cultural issues as well as such specific to children. The law also introduced instructions on COI sources and information gathering.
In 2022, timely invitations for personal interviews were sent in 24% of monitored procedures; in another 27%, asylum seekers signed interview invitations without being given a copy thereof; the signed invitation was attached to their personal file. 8 of these cases concerned unaccompanied children. Therefore, it can be concluded that in 2022 asylum seekers did not enjoy timely notification about the personal interview’s appointments, which violation was particularly serious at SAR’s reception centre in Banya where all invitations were served at its beginning.
The SAR uses the standard set of questions used during eligibility interviews and relied entirely on caseworkers’ decision if and when to ask open questions. However, such type of questions are rarely, if ever, asked during the interview. The standardized interview form is applied to all, including unaccompanied children, without any adaptation or account to children’s immaturity. This has resulted in a poor quality of examination of asylum claims; i.e. little investigation of the individuals’ statements and refugee stories. At the beginning of 2023, the new SAR management introduced an interview form adapted for asylum seeking children, including unaccompanied ones.
There are no guidelines or a code of conduct for asylum caseworkers to elaborate on the methodology for conducting interviews specifically. Similarly, there are currently no age or gender-sensitive mechanisms in place in relation to the conduct of interviews, except for the asylum seekers’ right to ask for an interpreter of the same gender. In 2022, considering all the cases where the case-worker and the asylum seeker were from different genders, only in 13% the asylum seeker was informed about the possibility to request that the interview be conducted by an interviewer of the same gender and only in 12% about the possibility to request an interpreter of the same gender.
The presence of an interpreter ensuring interpretation into a language that the asylum seeker understands is mandatory according to the LAR. The law provides for a gender-sensitive approach as interviews can be conducted by an interviewer and interpreter of the same sex as the asylum seeker interviewed upon request. In practice, all asylum seekers are asked explicitly whether they would like to have an interviewer or interpreter of the same sex in the beginning of each interview, although cases when this obligation is omitted by the caseworker still occur in many cases (see above 1.3. Personal interview).
Both at first and second instance, interpretation continued to present shortcomings in 2022, and its quality was often poor and unsatisfactory. Interpretation in determination procedures has remained one of the most serious, persistent and unsolved problems for a number of years. Interpretation is secured only from English, French and Arabic languages, and mainly in the reception centres in the capital Sofia. Interpreters from other key languages such as Kurdish (Sorani or Pehlewani), Pashto, Urdu, Tamil, Ethiopian and Swahili are scarce and largely unavailable. In such cases, as well as in cases when an interpreter from the spoken language is available in another reception centre, the asylum administration organises videoconference interpretation. Communication interruptions and other technical problems are the most common obstacles during interpretation via videoconference. It often creates an environment which does not allow the applicant to present properly his accounts in a detailed and systematic way, thus preventing the case worker from clarifying the relevant facts and circumstances for the decision-making process. The scarce fees paid for interpretation by the asylum agency SAR remain one of main reasons for the lack of proper interpretation during the eligibility interviews at first instance.
With respect to those who speak languages without interpreters available in Bulgaria, the communication takes place in a language chosen by the decision-maker, not the applicant. In the past, there were also cases where the determination was conducted with the assistance of another asylum seeker, but no similar issues were registered in 2021 and 2022, therefore it can be concluded that this serious procedural gap was finally solved. The control over interpreters was considerably strengthened in 2022 with only 0.2% of personal interviews in which the case-workers failed to keep the interpreter’s behaviour under control. In 2021 there were 11% such cases.
65% of the monitored court hearings were assisted by interpreters in 2022. The Administrative Court in Haskovo continued to persist in its unlawful practice to summon an interpreter for the first court hearing by telephone at the day of the hearing, if and when the appellant had already appeared in the court room. It created undue delays in cases where the appellants duly appeared as far as the hearings had to be postponed in order to arrange the interpretation. This malpractice created serious problems with respect to the level of understanding and communication between the court and the appellants as the latter were not informed in a language they understand about the next hearings scheduled and the other instructions by the judge in this respect, which often caused subsequent failure to appear and to be guaranteed a fair hearing before a court of law.
The quality of interpretation continues to be substandard. Interpreters’ Code of Conduct rules adopted in 2009 are not applied in practice. As a result, quite often the statements of asylum seekers are summarised or the interpreters provide comments on their authenticity or likelihood. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that interview protocols are not based on the audio recording of the interview but on the caseworker’s notes. Therefore the interpreters encounter difficulties to provide a full report of applicants’ statements and answers.
The lack of adequate budget for interpretation also affects the translation of written evidence, in cases were written evidence is submitted by applicants. In view of making savings and accelerating the procedure, caseworkers are told to advise the applicants to pay for translation fees of their documents themselves so as be taken into consideration during the status determination.
Recording and report
The law provides for mandatory audio or audio-video tape-recording of all eligibility interviews as the best safeguard against corruption and for unbiased claim assessment. The positive practice in this regard persisted in 2021 and 2022, as 100% of all monitored interviews were tape-recorded. This being said, the benefits of such a procedure are hindered by the fact that, in practice, caseworkers take a decision based on their own notes rather than the actual audio recording.
Videoconference interpretation during registration and eligibility interviews is also used, usually in Pastrogor, Harmanli and Banya, the reception centres outside the capital Sofia, where interpreters are harder to find and employ, in which case interviews are conducted with the assistance of the interpreters who work in Ovcha Kupel, Vrazhdebna and Voenna Rampa, the reception centres and shelters in Sofia. This type of interpretation create additional difficulties for the applicants, as video communication significantly delays the process of statements’ collecting.
All interviews are conducted by staff members of the SAR, whose competences include interviewing, case assessment and preparing a draft decision on the claim. In practice, almost all interviews continue to be recorded also in writing by interviewers by summarising and typing questions / answers in the official protocol. A report of the interview is prepared and it shall be read to, and then signed by the applicant, the interpreter and by the caseworker
In 2022, the registration forms or the records from the interviews were not read out to asylum seekers in 18% of the monitored procedures, which was an improvement in comparison with the previous years as this omission was made in 24% of the monitored cases in 2021, in 22% in 2020, in 46% in 2019, in 36% in 2018, and in 26% of the cases in 2017. The compliance with EU standards in this respect is of paramount importance as far as, under such circumstances, the information recorded in the report of the interview could be prone to potential manipulation, and the applicant would require a phonetic expertise requested in eventual appeal proceedings to validly contest the content of the report in case of inaccuracies. Court expertise expenses in asylum cases have instead to be met by the appellants.
Notwithstanding the small number of asylum seekers who presented any evidence to support their claims, caseworkers continued to omit their obligation to collect these pieces of evidence with a separate protocol, a copy of which should be served to the applicant. In 56% of monitored registrations, asylum seekers were informed about their obligation to submit all the available evidence to support their statements, while in the remaining 44% this was not done. In 67% of monitored cases asylum seekers submitted evidence in support of their refugee story; in 49% of them the evidence was properly protocoled. Hence this important safeguard that the submitted evidence would be taken into consideration in the decision-taking was not observed in 51% of the monitored cases. Notwithstanding this, it marked a continuing regress in this respect in comparison with the previous years, when this omission was made in 16% of the cases in 2021 and in just 12% of the cases in 2020.
A negative decision taken in the regular procedure on the merits of the asylum application can be appealed within 14 days from its notification. In general, this time limit has proven sufficient for rejected asylum seekers to get legal advice, prepare and submit the appeal within the deadline. The SAR is obligated to, and actually does, provide information to rejected asylum seekers as to where and how they can receive legal aid when serving a negative decision, in the form of a list.
The law establishes two appeal instances in the regular procedure, in contrast to appeal procedures for contesting decisions taken in Dublin: Appeal, Accelerated Procedure: Appeal and inadmissibility of Subsequent Applications procedures, where first instance decisions are reviewed in only one court appeal instance.
Appeal procedures are only judicial; the law does not envisage an administrative review of asylum determination decisions. Since a 2014 reform, competence for appeals in the regular procedure is distributed among all Regional Administrative Courts, designated as per the residence of the asylum seeker who has submitted the appeal. Six years later, however, the reform has not succeeded in significantly redistributing the caseloads among the national courts, as the majority of asylum seekers reside predominantly in reception centres or at external addresses in Sofia and Harmanli. Therefore the Sofia and Haskovo Regional Administrative Courts continue to be the busiest ones, dealing with the appeals against negative first-instance decisions.
Both appeals before the first and second-instance appeal courts have automatic suspensive effect.
The first appeal instance conducts a full review of the case, both on the facts and the points of law. Asylum seekers are summoned and questioned in a public hearing as to the reasons they applied for asylum. Decisions are published, but also served personally to the appellant.
If the first instance appeal decision is negative, asylum seekers can bring their case to the second (final) appeal court, the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC), but only with regard to points of law. At the end of 2019, the Chairperson of the Supreme administrative court took the controversial decision to move the asylum cases from the 3rd to 4th department. While the 3rd department of the SAC had been dealing with asylum cases for more than twenty-two years since the establishment of the Supreme Administrative Court in 1997, the 4th department had never been assigned such cases prior to the decision. The arrangement led to a deterioration for what concerned the quality of the decisions issued on asylum cases at this highest court instance, whose jurisprudence sets the standards to all lower national administrative courts. In 2022 it affected in 81% negative SAC decision issued on asylum cases, which although a slight improvement in comparison with 86% in 2021 still represents the overwhelming majority of the asylum cases brought before this highest court instance. Thus, in practice, asylum seekers did not enjoy two-instance court revision as the control exercised from the Supreme Administrative Court’s 4th department in the vast majority of the cases continued to be purely formal and superficial.
First instance appeal courts must issue their decisions within one month. The Cassation Court is not bound by such deadline. However, even for the first instance court this deadline is indicative and therefore regularly not respected. The average duration of an appeal procedure before the court at both judicial instances is 6 months, although in more complex cases it can last up to 12 months. If the court finally reverts the first instance decision back, the SAR has 3 months to issue a new decision, complying with the court’s instructions on the application of the law. As in previous years, SAR did not fully observe these deadlines, although in 2022 no repeated refusals despite the court’s instructions were issued. In the past, repeated appeal procedures against the second SAR negative decisions issued in breach of the court instructions, caused some asylum procedures to extend for over 2-3 years. Therefore, the fact that, in 2022, SAR observed court instructions, significantly improved the effectiveness of the judicial control in particular, and the length of the asylum procedure in general.
Since 2013, the Law on Legal Aid provides mandatory legal aid for asylum seekers at all stages of the status determination procedure, sponsored under the state budget, though in practice due to lack of funding such is provided only to vulnerable persons with specific needs upon their explicit request. Amendments to the law in 2020 also entrusted to listed legal aid lawyers the representation of unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children both during the procedure, but also after their recognition. The law however does not explicitly provide for legal aid to any other beneficiaries of international or temporary protection. The National Legal Aid Bureau in October 2022 put forward a draft proposal to amend the law and include these categories in the scope of the legal aid. The amendment was adopted in December 2022 and entered into force on 26 December 2022.
The general legal aid system was introduced in Bulgaria in 2005, extending it to court representation in all types of cases beyond its mandatory provision in criminal, child protection and tort disputes. In 2017 the scope of the legal aid was extended to include oral consultations at the national help line or in regional legal aid centres. The condition for the legal aid to be provided is the applicants for legal aid to lack means and resources to engage a lawyer privately against remuneration.
Legal assistance at first instance
Asylum seekers have the right to ask for the appointment of a legal aid lawyer from the moment of the registration of their asylum application. However, legal aid in first-instance procedures has still not been implemented as of the end of 2022.
At the end of 2017, the National Legal Aid Bureau, the national body assigned to provide state sponsored legal aid, received funding under the AMIF national programme to introduce – for the first time ever in Bulgaria – the provision of legal aid to asylum seekers during the administrative phase of the asylum procedure. Legal aid under this 80,000 € pilot project was implemented until 31 January 2021 and was limited to the vulnerable categories among applicants for international protection. The project however ended on 31 July 2021.
After the end of the project, the National Legal Aid Bureau agreed to continue representing vulnerable applicants under its general rules, which would require the asylum seekers to fill in and submit complicated legal aid applications. The NGO Bulgarian Helsinki Committee funded by UNHCR assisted the NLAB with the adaptation and translation of the legal aid forms in English, French, Russian, Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Kurdish and Turkish languages to facilitate the access to legal aid to vulnerable applicants A problem persists, however, for those who are illiterate and where the assistance of case workers is the only way to get access to legal aid. Yet, some of them are reluctant to grant access to legal aid as it would mean that their role in and quality of the procedure would be assessed. In 2022, legal aid was not provided to applicants other than unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children. This represented a significant deterioration of national practices in this respect, as 50 asylum seekers at first instance had been assisted with state provided legal aid in 2021, and 818 vulnerable applicants in 2020. Other asylum seekers who were not recognised as having specific vulnerabilities did not enjoy access to legal aid at the first instance of the asylum procedure even in previous years.
Amendments to the law introduced at the end of 2020 foresee a major change in the legal representation of unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children. The obligation to represent these children not only in the procedure, but also after the recognition and before all agencies and institutions with regard to their rights and entitlements, was shifted from the municipalities to the National Legal Aid Bureau. The law also introduced conditions for the qualification of the appointed legal aid lawyers and requirements for a representation in the child’s best interest. The selection and the following training of selected lawyers was carried out in May-June 2021. Since July 2021, 16 lawyers from the Sofia Bar, 8 lawyers from Haskovo Bar and 3 lawyers from Sliven Bar have been implementing the representation of unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children. Preliminary feedback both from children and child protection monitoring, implemented by BHC with the support of UNICEF so far remain predominantly positive with respect to legal aid lawyers acting in Sofia reception centres and predominantly reserved to negative with respect to legal aid lawyers acting in Harmanli reception centre.
Legal assistance in appeals
The aforementioned AMIF-funded pilot project on legal aid, which was carried out up until 31 January 2021, also covered assistance in the preparation of appeals before the court. As mentioned above, it ended on 31 July 2021.
Otherwise, for regular applicants on appeal, national legal aid arrangements only provide for state-funded legal assistance and representation after a court case has been initiated, i.e. after the appeal has been drafted and lodged. As a result, asylum seekers rely entirely on NGOs for their access to the court, namely for drafting and lodging the appeal.
 Article 75(1) LAR.
 Article 74 LAR.
 SAR, reg. No. №РД05-40 from 16 January 2023.
 From 20,391 in 2015, to 19,418 in 2016, to 3,700 in 2017, to 2,536 in 2018, to 2,152 in 2019.
 See, AIDA updates from 2015 to 2019 at: https://asylumineurope.org/reports/country/bulgaria/.
 This is calculated based on a total of 3,045 decisions taken in 2020 i.e. 2,195 decisions (105 refugee statuses, 716 humanitarian statuses, 172 refusals, 1202 manifestly unfounded) and 850 suspended and terminated (398 suspensions and 452 terminations).
 This is calculated based on a total of 3,908 cases i.e. 383 persons with pending claims at the end of 2019 plus 3,525 new applicants.
 Teleconference with SAR Deputy on Procedure from 20 January 2023.
 Article 75 (1) LAR, 6 months from the date of the registration.
 Source: SAR.
 SAR, reg. №РД05-40 from 16 January 2023: 20,407 asylum seekers who applied in 2022 and 11,185 asylum seekers pending determination from 2021.
 9,895 discontinued procedures out of all 10,414 Afghan applicants pending in 2022, of whom 7,164 applied in 2022 and 3,250 were pending from 2021.
 See, Table Statistics, page 7 of this report: 69 Afghan decisions on the merits.
 Article 63a (3) LAR.
 Article 63a (7) LAR in conjunction with Article 61a (5) LAR.
 Article 63a (5) LAR.
 Article 61a (2)-(4) and (6) LAR.
 Article 63(3) LAR.
 SAR, reg. №РД05-40 from 16 January 2023.
 Article 63a (6) LAR.
 Article 63a(6) LAR.
 Article 63a(3) LAR.
 See Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), Case C-348/16 Sacko, Judgment of 26 July 2017, para 35; Case C-249/13 Boudjlida, Judgment of 11 December 2014, para 37; Case C-166/13 Mukarubega, Judgment of 5 November 2014, para 47.
 Article 92 LAR.
 Article 85(4) LAR
 Article 85(3) LAR in conjunction with Article 84(1)-(2) LAR.
 Article 84(2)-(4) LAR in conjunction with Article 133 Administrative Procedure Code.
 The Court decisions are available at: https://bit.ly/2OZU62r (Sofia court), https://bit.ly/39nuVjv (Haskovo court), https://bit.ly/2MOgihu (Sliven court) and https://bit.ly/2XxkioP (Supreme administrative court).
 SAR, reg. №РД05-40 from 16 January 2023.
 Article 85(5) LAR.
 SAR, reg. №РД05-40 from 16 January 2023.
 Article 22(8) Law on Legal Aid.
 §1(17) from Additional Clauses LAR, namely: 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
 State Gazette No.102 from 23 December 2022.
 Articles 30d to 30o Law on Legal Aid, as amended St.G. №13 from 7 February 2017.
 National Legal Aid Bureau, tel. 0700 18 250.
 SAR, reg. №РД05-40 from 16 January 2023.
 Article 25 LAR.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee/UNICEF, Monthly progress report on child protection, 15 January 2023.