2021 as the eighth “zero integration year”

Bulgaria

Country Report: 2021 as the eighth “zero integration year” Last updated: 23/02/22

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Recognised refugees are explicitly entitled to equal treatment in rights to Bulgarian nationals with just a few exclusions, such as: participation in general and municipal elections, in national and regional referenda; participation in the establishment of political parties and membership of such parties; holding positions for which Bulgarian citizenship is required by law; serving in the army and, other restrictions explicitly provided for by law.[1] Individuals granted subsidiary protection (“humanitarian status”) have the same rights as third-country nationals with permanent residence.[2]

2021 as the eighth “zero integration year”

Since 2013 and including in 2021, Bulgaria followed a “zero integration year”. The first National Programme for the Integration of Refugees (NPIR) was adopted and applied until the end of 2013, but since then all beneficiaries of international protection have been left without any integration support. This resulted in extremely limited access or ability by these individuals to enjoy even the most basic social, labour and health rights, while their willingness to permanently settle in Bulgaria was reported to have decreased to a minimum.[3] In 2021, 26% of asylum applicants abandoned their status determination procedures in Bulgaria, [4]  which were thus subsequently terminated. In comparison, this percentage was 39% in 2020, 86% in 2019, 79% in 2018, 77% in 2017, 88% in 2016, 83% in 2015 and 46% in 2014. The decrease in 2021 was mainly due to COVID-19 measures, which hindered secondary movement in and across Europe, but also the crisis with the stranded migrants in the Western Balkans following the closure of Hungarian, Croatian and Austrian land borders.[5]  These factors motivated an increasing number of asylum seekers to wait for the outcome of their Bulgarian procedures and to travel to the countries of their final destination afterwards, regularly or irregularly, depending on whether the decision on their asylum claim was positive or negative.

The necessary integration legal framework, the Integration Decree, was finally adopted in 2016,[6] but it remained unused throughout 2016 and 2017, as none of the 265 local municipalities had applied for funding in order to launch an integration process with any of the individuals granted international protection in Bulgaria. On 31 March 2017, on the last day of its mandate, the caretaker Cabinet fulfilled the election promise of the newly elected Bulgarian President and repealed the Decree without any reasonable justification.[7] A new Decree was adopted on 19 July 2017, which in its essence repeated the provisions of its predecessor.[8] Since its adoption, only 83 status holders benefitted from integration support, however all of them were relocated with integration funding provided under the EU relocation scheme, not by the general national integration mechanism. Following relentless advocacy efforts by UNHCR, the Refugee Council and the Red Cross with the support of the SAR, the Vitosha and Oborishte Districts (Sofia municipality) provided an integration support in 2021 to 83 individuals among whom the majority were families but also 2 single status holders. The eligibility criteria and the selection process were adopted, respectively implemented jointly by the municipalities, UNHCR and the Red Cross Refugee Service. The support itself consisted of rent expenses covered by the municipalities and the fee for the Bulgarian language courses, covered by the Red Cross.

In his report issued in April 2018, the Council of Europe Special Representative on migration and refugees also underlined that, while the decentralisation of integration responsibilities from the government to municipalities would in principle be a sensible step forward, the fact that the discharge of such responsibilities was not mandatory but left to the discretion of municipalities raised questions about the effectiveness of integration measures in Bulgaria. This was illustrated by fact that no municipality has volunteered to conclude Integration Agreements, although funds would be allocated to them for every refugee participating in such agreements.[9]

Courts and human rights monitoring bodies have taken into account the treatment of beneficiaries of international protection in Bulgaria when assessing the legality of readmissions. In a case of 15 December 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled against the return of a Syrian family from Denmark to Bulgaria, on the ground that their residence permit would not protect them against obstacles to accessing healthcare, or risks of destitution and hardship.[10] Similar arguments are found in the Human Rights Committee interim measures granted on 1 February 2017 to prevent the transfer of an Afghan family with three young children from Austria to Bulgaria.[11] Notwithstanding the family was returned to Bulgaria by the Austrian authorities shortly after it.

National courts in some European countries have also halted transfers of beneficiaries of protection to Bulgaria on account of substandard conditions.[12] The German Administrative Court of Freiburg, for example, ruled in favour of the suspension of a transfer to Bulgaria in a decision of 5 July 2021, where it found that the applicant, who was absent from the country for a long time, would face a withdrawal of his protection status upon return. The Court highlighted the difficult conditions that beneficiaries of international protection face in Bulgaria, such as limited access to economic support, difficult living conditions, lack of integration programmes and difficulties in accessing healthcare

Moreover, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) issued its decision in the case of MKAH v Switzerland on 6 October 2021, which was brought by the Centre Suisse pour la défense des droits des migrants (CDSM) with the intervention from the AIRE Centre, ECRE and the Dutch Council for Refugees.[13] The CRC found that, although the applicants were granted subsidiary protection status in Bulgaria, they had to live for eight months in a camp with inadequate material conditions and no access to education nor the labour market. This forced them to leave Bulgaria and seek the support of relatives. The CRC thus recommended Switzerland to: reconsider the decision to return MKAH to Bulgaria; urgently re-examine the applicant and his mother’s asylum application ensuring the best interests of the child are a primary consideration, the applicant is duly heard and taking into account the particular circumstances of the case; take in to account that MKAH may remain stateless in Bulgaria, ensure MKAH receives qualified psychological assistance to facilitate his rehabilitation and to take all necessary measures to ensure violations don’t recur.[14]

 

 

[1] Article 32(1) LAR.

[2]  Article 32(2) LAR.

[3]  CERD, Concluding observations on the combined twentieth to twenty-second periodic reports to Bulgaria, CERD/C/BGR/CO/20-22, 31 May 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2wSzIpq, para 21(f); Bulgarian Council on Refugees and Migrants, Annual Monitoring Report on Integration of Beneficiaries of international protection in Bulgaria, Sofia, December 2014.

[4]  Out of the 2,195 decisions taken, to whom in 398 cases status determination stopped and terminated in 452 cases.

[5] European Commission, European civil protection and humanitarian aid operations, Bosnia: Fact Sheet, available in English at: https://bit.ly/3IyVR0m.

[6]  Ordinance No 208 of 12 August 2016 on rules and conditions to conclude, implement and cease integration agreements with foreigners granted asylum or international protection (hereafter “Integration Decree”), State Gazette No 65/19.08.2016, available in Bulgarian at: http://bit.ly/2jJwnEi.

[7] Liberties.eu, ‘Bulgarian caretaker government repealed regulation on refugee integration’, 13 April 2017, available at: http://bit.ly/2BLqhsS.

[8]  Ordinance No 144 of 19 July 2017 State Gazette No 60/25.08.2017, available in Bulgarian at: http://bit.ly/2Ec2uHL.

[9] Council of Europe, Report of the fact-finding mission by Ambassador Tomáš Boček, Special Representative of the Secretary General on migration and refugees to Bulgaria, SG/Inf(2018)18, 19 April 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2HtHSgv, 17.

[10]  Human Rights Committee, R.A.A. v. Denmark, Communication No 2608/2015, 15 December 2016.

[11]  Human Rights Committee, Communication No 2942/2017.

[12]  See e.g. German High Administrative Court of Lüneburg, Decision 10 LB 82/17, 29 January 2018.

[13] UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), A.M. (au nom de M.K.A.H.) c. Suisse, No 95/2019, 6 October 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3rv6iur.

[14]  See also : EDAL summary, CRC: Declares Switzerland did not consider the best interests of the child in a removal decision to Bulgaria, 6 October 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3GguTIQ.

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