The report was previously updated in February 2020.
- COVID–19 consequences: On 13 March 2020 the government declared a state of emergency as a measure against the COVID-19 pandemic. All borders were shut down. Shortly after, the national asylum agency announced that a quarantine would be applied to all reception centers, thus forbidding any access to the latter except for staff and residents. All asylum-related procedures were suspended, except for the renewal of asylum documents and the registration of asylum seekers transferred from pre-removal detention facilities. National courts also suspended their operations, except for emergency proceedings, which did not include asylum cases. The lockdown was officially lifted on 13 May 2020, but it was not before the beginning of June 2020 that determination procedures resumed at all instances.
- Access to the territory: Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, new arrivals increased by 57% compared to 2019. However Bulgaria traditionally experiences much lower numbers than its neighbour Greece. It is a long-standing practice of the Bulgarian authorities to prevent Turkish nationals from accessing the international protection procedure and to return them back, including in some cases in violation of the non-refoulement In return, the Turkish authorities to a large extent divert the migratory pressure from the Bulgarian to the Greek border. The latest example in this respect was the March 2020 border crisis in the Pazarkule-Kastanies region, when the attempted entries to Bulgaria were close to none. Nevertheless, a significant number of asylum seekers continue to try to enter the EU through Bulgaria. In 2020, the authorities issued 4,658 formal non-admissions and allegedly carried out 498 indirect pushbacks – affecting 3,493 individuals – as well as 569 direct pushbacks – affecting 11,770 individuals, as indicated by the national border monitoring.
- Absconding and onward movement: Large numbers of third country nationals continued to transit and exit the country without any interference with the national authorities. The majority of those who have been apprehended further abscond after being released on account of submitted and registered asylum applications. Although these figures decreased in 2020 because of COVID-19, they still represent 83% of the overall asylum seeking population in the country. The Western Balkans became the most active migratory route in 2020 as figures doubled from the end of 2019. This is also due to a significant decrease of the illegal crossings at the EU’s external borders along the Eastern, Central and Western Mediterranean routes.
- Determination procedures in pre-removal detention facilities: In 2020, only 0.6% of the determination procedures have been carried out in pre-removal detention facilities, which marks a decrease compared to the previous year. This illegal practice used to be systematically applied in 2019, in violation of the law.
- Discriminatory determination of certain nationalities: Nationalities from certain countries such as Ukraine, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are discriminatorily treated as manifestly unfounded applicants under the Accelerated Procedure, resulting in zero recognition rates, i.e. 100% rejection. This also applied to Afghan nationals who faced a 99% rejection rate. Afghanistan has been the top country of origin in Bulgaria for five consecutive years since 2016.
- Representation of unaccompanied children: A major change to the legal representation of unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children was introduced by law at the end of 2020. It shifted the responsibility of their legal representation from the municipalities to the National Legal Aid Bureau. Legal representation applies throughout the asylum procedure but also after recognition and before all relevant agencies responsible for the children’s rights and entitlements. 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 subsequent training of selected lawyers are expected to be carried out in early 2021.
- Deteriorating standards of the judicial control: The effectiveness of the judicial system as the sole avenue for independent revision of first instance decisions continued to be further undermined. In March 2018, the Chair of the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) had moved 100 asylum cases from the 3rd Section, specialised in asylum and refugee law, to the 4th Section of the Court.The latter speedily and overwhelmingly rejected the appeals without any individual assessment and proper reasoning. In January 2020 the SAC’s Chair withdrew the asylum cases from the specialised 3rd Section and assigned them again to the 4th Section of the Court, though this time – fully and indefinitely. Civil society and international organisations pleaded for reconsideration of the arrangement in order to prevent a serious loss of knowledge, experience and legal expertise in the field of asylum and international protection, accumulated by the 3rd Section of the Court over the last three decades. However, the SAC’s management refused to reconsider the arrangement. As a result 96% of the appeals were rejected, and in 14% of the cases the SAC overturned positive judgements that had been issued by lower court instances.
- Access to benefits: Asylum seekers who decide to live outside reception centers at their own expenses are not entitled to any social benefits. Asylum seekers who are not self-sufficient are entitled to accommodation in the available reception centers, three meals per day, basic medical assistance and psychological support, although the latter is not secured in practice. Access to any other social benefits under the EU acquis is not guaranteed by law nor provided in practice.
- Access to the labour market: For the duration of the procedure asylum seekers have unconditional access to the labour market after a period of three months from their personal registration. In 2020 however the COVID-19 pandemic deteriorated the already difficult national economic situation, which further complicated asylum seekers’ and refugees’ employment and self-sufficiency.
- Safe zones for unaccompanied children: The first safe zone for unaccompanied children opened in mid-2019 in the refugee reception centre (RRC) in Sofia at the Voenna Rampa shelter where children are provided round-the-clock care and support tailored to their specific needs.  The Voenna Rampa safe zone accommodate primarily Afghan and Pakistani children. A second safe-zone at the RRC Sofia, in the Ovcha Kupel shelter, opened in January 2020 to accommodate children originating from Arab speaking countries. Both safe-zones are operated by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – Bulgaria and funded by AMIF. The IOM’s safe zones operation is due to be extended under the new AMIF grant for another two years after January 2021, and further includes a new safe zone in the biggest national RRC in the town of Harmanli, South-East Bulgaria.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Average detention duration: In 2020 the authorities applied a mandatory fourteen days quarantine to all newly detained third country nationals. In case of a positive PCR test at the end of the quarantine, the detention period could be repeatedly extended by a week until a negative test result, at which point the quarantine was lifted. During quarantine, the individuals were not able to receive legal advice or assistance to apply for asylum. As a result, the quarantine period is not included into the detention duration, which is calculated from the date of formal submission of the asylum application. The average detention duration of first-time applicants, excluding quarantine, thus reached 8 calendar or 6 working days.
Content of international protection
- Integration: In 2020, no integration activities were planned, funded or made available to recognised refugees or subsidiary protection holders; thus marking the seventh consecutive year of the national “zero integration” policy. However, following relentless advocacy efforts from UNHCR, the Refugee Council and the Red Cross, which were supported by the State Agency for Refugees, 12 refugee families are expected to receive an integration support by the Vitosha and Oborishte Districts, Sofia municipality, in 2021. No other future integration activities are planed however.
- Cessation and withdrawal of international protection: In 2020, a new provision introduced an additional cessation clause, in contradiction both to the Refugee Convention, and the Qualification Directive. The law permits cessation or revocation of international protection if status holders fail, in a period of thirty days, to renew their expired Bulgarian identity documents or to replace them if they have been lost, stolen or destroyed. This amendment officialises a practice which has been applied by the national asylum agency since 2018. The undue cessation of international protection has affected 4,264 status holders in total so far, respectively – 770 persons in 2018; 2,608 persons in 2019; and 886 persons in 2020.
- Relocation and resettlement: Since 2015 Bulgaria accepted 77 individuals under the relocation scheme, of whom 43 individuals from Greece and 10 individuals from Italy. As regards resettlement, only 85 Syrian refugees have been resettled so far, out of the agreed number of 110 individuals. 
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2020 Situation report, 10 February 2021.
 Article 45b LAR.
 Article 25 LAR.
 UNICEF, ref. No. O-20-051 from 1 June 2020;
 Supreme administrative court, ref. No.490 from 18 June 2020.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2020 Situation report, 10 February 2021.
 Article 29 (9) LAR.
 Article 29 (1) LAR.
 Articles 17-18 and 25 of the Reception Conditions Directive (RCD)
 Article 29 (3) LAR.
 Article 42 (5) LAR.
 Article 1C of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
 Article 11 and 16 recast Qualification Directive.
 SAR, Exh. No. РД05-22/13.01.2021
 Council of Ministers, Decision №750 from 30 November 2017.