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 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.
According to monitoring activities in 2020, the general decision-taking 6 months deadline was observed in 94% of the cases, leaving 6% of the cases 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, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Whereas the number of asylum applications has constantly decreased from 2015 to 2019, the percentage of already registered asylum seekers who abandoned their asylum procedures in Bulgaria continued to be high in 2020, reaching 30% of all decisions and 22% of all caseloads. Out of the decisions taken, 15% of asylum procedures were terminated (discontinued) and 13% suspended in absentia:
First instance SAR decisions on asylum applications: 2020
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 has been completed, a date for an interview shall be set. The law requires that asylum seekers whose applications were admitted to the regular procedure be interviewed at least once with regard to 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 in order 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.  No particular issues have been reported in 2020, except with respect to timely notification about the date of the interview, which often is issued when the interview in question has already begun.
Since January 2019, the SAR abandoned the standard set of questions used during eligibility interviews and relied entirely on caseworkers’ ability to structure the interview on open questions. However, 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 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. This has resulted in a poor quality of examination of asylum claims; i.e. little investigation of the individuals’ statements and refugee stories.
Moreover, while interviewers used to have the opportunity to ask applicants open questions and to allow them to clarify potential contradictions, a unified interviewing process was put in place in 2019, limiting to a great extent the possibility for the caseworker to investigate in depth the grounds for their applications.
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.
Both at first and second instance, interpretation continued to be difficult in 2020, and its quality was often poor and unsatisfactory. Interpretation in determination procedures remains 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.
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. In both cases it is done without the asylum seeker’s consent or evidence that he or she understands it or is able to communicate clearly in that language. It has to be noted however that, in 2020, this represented only 0.2% of the cases, therefore it can be concluded that this serious procedural gap was been finally addressed.
58% of the monitored court hearings were assisted by interpreters. In 2020 the regional administrative court in Haskovo regularly omitted to engage interpreters in the first hearing on asylum cases in attempt to make savings, if the appellants failed to appear before the court. It created undue delay in the 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.
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 2020, as 100% of all monitored interviews were tape-recorded. This being said, the benefits of such a procedure are biased 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. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee’s experience finds this type of interpretation to create additional difficulties for the applicants to make their statements, as video communication is often disrupted or unclear due to connection problems.
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.
However, in 22% of the procedures monitored, the interview or the registration reports were not read out to asylum seekers before being served for signature, raising concerns over compliance with EU standards. Therefore practices in 2020 marked a slight progress in comparison with previous years, as this omission was made in 46% of the monitored cases in 2019, 36% of the cases in 2018, and in 26% of the cases in 2017. 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 in order to validly contest the content of the report in case of inaccuracies. Court expertise expenses in asylum cases have to be met by the appellants, however.
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 12% of the monitored cases in 2020, the evidence submission was not properly protocoled as one of the safeguards for proper credibility assessment, which is an improvement in comparison to 2019 when it was made in 20% of the monitored cases.
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 proved 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 (see Regular Procedure: Legal Assistance).
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, which has never dealt with such cases before. 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. This new arrangement undermines 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 2020, it affected in almost 100% negative SAC decisions issued on asylum cases. Thus, in practice, asylum seekers did not enjoy two-instance court revision as the control exercised from the Supreme Administrative Court’s 4th department proved to be purely formal and superficial.
First instance appeal courts have to 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 however, SAR continues to disregard these deadlines, and in many cases refuses again the asylum application despite the court’s instructions. Repeated appeal procedures against the second negative decision can cause some asylum procedures to extend for over 2-3 years.
The legal aid system was introduced in Bulgaria in 2005, extending it to court representation beyond the criminal, child protection and tort disputes. 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. In the law, the provision of legal aid to asylum seekers is subject to the condition that legal aid is not already provided on another basis. This “means” test is fulfilled on the basis of an applicant’s declaration that he or she does not work and does not have sufficient resources.
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 2020.
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 commence 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 was extended until 31 July 2021.
The National Legal Aid Bureau and the SAR agreed and adopted formal rules and conditions for the provision of legal aid in practice, including individual and third-party complaint mechanisms, anti-discrimination and anti-corruption measures, which took effect on 31 December 2017.
The provision of legal aid for vulnerable asylum applicants commenced in March 2018 and in 2020 was secured to 818 asylum seekers at first instance. Other asylum seekers did not enjoy access to legal aid at the first instance of the asylum procedure.
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 are expected to be carried out in early 2021.
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, the project has been extended until 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. Presently, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee provides this type of assistance independently of EU funding. In 2020, BHC assisted 4,835 asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection, of whom 3,525 were new applicants in 2020 and 383 were asylum seekers with cases pending from previous years.
 Article 75(1) LAR.
 Article 74 LAR.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2020 Annual RSD Report, 31 January 2021, based on a statistical quota of 70 cases examined on the merits.
 SAR, Exh. No. РД05-22/13.01.2021
 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.
 This is calculated on the basis of 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 on the basis of a total of 3,908 cases i.e. 383 persons with pending claims at the end of 2019 plus 3,525 new applicants.
 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.
 Article 63a (6) LAR.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2020 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, 31 January 2021.
 Article 63a(6) LAR.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2020 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, 31 January 2021, 84.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2020 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, 31 January 2021.
 Article 63a(3) LAR.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2020 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, 31 January 2021.
 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).
 Article 85(5) LAR.
 Article 22(8) Law on Legal Aid.
 SAR, Exh. No. РД05-22/13.01.2021.
 Article 25 LAR.
 Since 1994, UNHCR has supported and partnered with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee with regard to protection and legal assistance to asylum seekers in Bulgaria.