Overview of the of the main changes since the previous report update

Bulgaria

Country Report: Overview of the of the main changes since the previous report update Last updated: 23/02/22

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Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Visit Website

National context

In 2021, Bulgaria held three general and one presidential elections. The first parliamentary elections were held in April 2021,[1] but no party was able to form a government. It triggered the appointment of a caretaker cabinet,[2] and snap parliamentary elections held in July 2021, which also failed to appoint a regular government.[3] The third elections were held in November 2021 overlapping with the presidential polls. A broad coalition government was finally appointed. Its leading party was established in mid-2021 by two former ministers from the caretaker cabinet, appointed by the president.[4] The president himself was re-elected in November 2021 for another five years term. When initially inaugurated in 2017 the president Radev, a former member of the former Communist party (BSP), announced the repeal of the Refugee Integration Decree as one of his first political decisions.[5] During his campaign, the re-elected president re-affirmed his general stand against refugees, and in particular against their rights to access the territory and to seek asylum in Bulgaria.[6]

Asylum procedure

  • Access to the territory: As an external EU border, Bulgaria sits on the doorstep of the Eastern Mediterranean route next to a major hub for irregular migration to Europe, Turkey. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which introduced lockdowns and closed borders across the globe, the number of arrivals in Bulgaria began to rise in mid-2020 and reached a total of 64% annual increase.[7] This trend continued in 2021 as there were a total of 10,999 applicants for international protection in Bulgaria, compared to 3,525 applicants in 2020 and 2,152 applicants in 2019. This represents a 212% increase of asylum seekers compared to 2020. Moreover, a total of 10,799 third country nationals were apprehended without previous police registration, thus representing a 210% increase of new irregular migrants who were apprehended during the year. The number of pending cases also significantly increased from 2,201 cases at the end of 2020 to 7,556 cases at the end of 2021.The main contributing factors for the increase of arrivals were the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in summer 2021, the dire security situation in Northern Iraq as well as the political and economic instability in the neighbouring Turkey. At the same time, national border arrangements fail to provide both sufficient means to prevent irregular entries[8], and safe legal channels for those who attempt to enter to lodge an application for international protection.[9] Pushback practices thus continue to be widespread. In 2021 the national border monitoring mechanism registered 2,513 alleged pushback incidents affecting a total of 44,988 individuals.[10]
  • Access to procedure: First time applicants were subject to detention in the context of COVID-19 and the mandatory ten days quarantine imposed to all newly arrived irregular migrants without exclusion. Status determination in immigration detention centers resumed in 2021 although to a limited extent.[11] The number of asylum seekers placed in closed asylum facilities also slightly increased.[12] The national asylum agency, SAR, continued to refuse registration of asylum seekers who approached its reception-and-registration centers (RRCs) independently and transferred them to immigration detention centers in violation of the law. This affected 196 newly arrived asylum seekers among whom families with minor children and pregnant women.
  • Absconding and onward movement: Out of the total 10,999 asylum seekers in 2021, only 2,897 (26%) abandoned their procedures in Bulgaria. This marks a significant decrease compared to 39% in 2020 and 83% in 2019. The main reason for the asylum seekers’ stay in Bulgaria seems to be linked to the crisis with the stranded migrants in the Western Balkans following the closure of Hungarian, Croatian and Austrian land borders.[13] Asylum seekers prefer to await the outcome of their application for international protection in Bulgaria and, depending on whether the decision is positive or negative, decide to travel to other countries either regularly or irregularly afterwards.
  • COVID19: In 2021 the government extended several times the state of medical emergency as a measure against the pandemic.[14] Access to reception centers, except for staff and residents, remained limited throughout the whole year,[15] although UNHCR and NGOs were allowed to implement random or regular visits following a formal authorisation. A mandatory 10-days medical quarantine was applied to all applicants, registered and accommodated in reception centers, which delayed their status determination procedures. Some concerns were raised specifically regarding unaccompanied minor children below the age of 14 who were also put in solitary isolation during the quarantine, thus affecting their emotional and psychological well-being. Otherwise asylum procedures were held normally and without unusual delays. The national courts held hearings where the parties were physically present, although the hearings were closed to the general public or press, unless the contrary was explicitly permitted by the presiding judge or panel.[16]
  • Discriminatory status determination of certain nationalities: The overall recognition rate at first instance stood at 61% in 2021. However, recognition rates of non-Syrian applicants remained predominantly below 8%, except for stateless applicants whose recognition rate reached 85% in 2021.[17] Nationalities from certain countries such as Algeria, Morocco Tunisia and Bangladesh are systematically treated as manifestly unfounded applicants under the Accelerated Procedure with zero recognition rates, i.e. 100% rejection. Turkish and Afghan nationals continued to be subject to unfair and discriminatory treatment with very low recognition rates, namely 10% for Afghan nationals and 8% for Turkish nationals.
  • Afghan applicants for international protection: Since 2016, Afghanistan has been the top nationality of applicants in Bulgaria, for five consecutive years. As of the end of 2021, Afghan cases began to gradually change with some high profile cases and increased statements for personal risk of persecution. As a result, the annual recognition rate of Afghan applicants reached a national record of 10% in 2021 – but overall the rejection rate remained at 90%. It is yet to be seen whether the national authorities’ attitude and treatment of Afghan nationals will change in general. As of the end of 2021, most subsequent applications lodged by Afghan nationals who filed them post-August 2021 events continued to be considered inadmissible by the national asylum agency.
  • Representation of unaccompanied children: Since the end of 2020 the legal representation of unaccompanied children during the asylum procedure and after their recognition was handed to legal aid lawyers appointed by the National Legal Aid Bureau.[18] The selection of these lawyers was carried out in June 2021. However, the national monitoring established that in many individual cases the asylum agency, SAR, significantly delayed the notification to the National Legal Aid Bureau of the necessity to appoint a representative, reaching a period longer than 1 month in certain cases.[19] As a result these unaccompanied children had no access to credible information about the asylum procedure and their rights, and especially the right to be legally transferred under the Dublin III Regulation to other EU countries in order to reunite with their family members. Nearly half of all unaccompanied children abandoned their asylum procedure and continued irregularly to the countries of their final destination.[20]
  • Deteriorated judicial control: The effectiveness of the judicial system as the sole avenue for independent revision of first instance decisions remains severely undermined. In January 2020 the Supreme Administrative Court’s Chair decided to transfer asylum cases from the specialised 3rd Section to the 4th Section of the Court. Civil society and international organisations advocated against this change to prevent the loss of knowledge, experience and expertise, accumulated by the 3rd Section of the Court over the last three decades.[21] However the SAC’s chairperson refused to reconsider the arrangement.[22] As a result, 82% of the asylum appeals were rejected by this highest court instance in 2021, out of which 18% overturned positive judgements of lower instances.[23]
  • Relocation and resettlement: Since 2015, Bulgaria accepted 88 individuals under the relocation scheme, of whom 76 individuals from Greece and 10 individuals from Italy. Since the EU-Turkey deal, out of the agreed number of 110 individuals in total 85 Syrian refugees have been resettled so far.

Reception conditions

  • Reception centers: The conditions in the vast majority of the reception centers remain overwhelmingly substandard.[24] In some of them, such as Harmanli reception center, the conditions have even worsened during 2021. Except for the Vrazhdebna shelter and the safe-zones, all other reception centers experience ongoing issues with their infrastructure and fail to provide the most basic services including hygiene, adequate amenities for personal and community spaces. Personal safety and security are also seriously compromised due to the presence of smugglers, drug dealers and sex workers who have access to the centers during the night hours without any interference from the private security staff.
  • Access to benefits: Asylum seekers who decide to live outside reception centers at their own expenses are not entitled to any social benefits.[25] 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,[26] though the latter is not secured in practice. Monthly cash allowance is not provided since 2015.[27] Access to any other social benefits under the EU acquis is not guaranteed by law, nor provided in practice, thus raising questions of compliance with Articles 17, 18 and 25 of the recast Reception Conditions Directive.
  • Access to the labour market: During the asylum procedure, asylum seekers have unconditional access to the labour market after a period of three months from their personal registration.[28] The COVID-19 pandemic deteriorated the already difficult national economic situation, which further complicated asylum seekers’ and refugees’ employment and self-sufficiency. In 2021, only 7 status holders and 2 asylum seekers were registered as job seekers, of whom 3 status holders and 2 asylum seekers were actually employed.[29] The national asylum authority issued 146 work permits based on which 97 asylum seekers were employed while their procedure was still ongoing.[30]
  • Safe zones for unaccompanied children: There are two safe zones for unaccompanied children in Bulgaria where children are provided round-the-clock care and support tailored to their specific needs.[31] Both are situated in Sofia’s reception-and-registration centre (RRC), namely in the Voenna Rampa shelter accommodating primarily Afghan and Pakistani children, and in the Ovcha Kupel shelter for children speaking Arabic. The safe-zones are managed by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and funded by AMIF. However due to the significant increase of unaccompanied children from 799 children in 2020 to 3,172 children in 2021 (i.e. +296%), the capacity of the existing safe-zones (288 places in total) proved utterly insufficient to host all arriving children. As a result, many unaccompanied children were accommodated outside the safe-zones in mixed premises with adults and without proper support and guaranteed personal safety. By way of illustration, the largest national reception center in the town of Harmanli, which has capacity for 2,710 asylum seekers and where many unaccompanied children were accommodated, continued to operate without a safe-zone.

Detention of asylum seekers

  • Average detention duration: In 2021 the authorities continued to apply a mandatory ten 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. 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 period, decreased to 7 calendar or 5 working days.

Content of international protection

  • Integration: Following advocacy efforts from UNHCR, the Refugee Council and the Red Cross, supported by the State Agency for Refugees, 83 individuals (several families and two single persons) received integration support by Sofia Municipality’s Vitosha and Oborishte Districts based on 17 integration contracts. No other integration activities are planned, funded or made available to recognised refugees or subsidiary protection holders; thus marking the eighth consecutive year of the national “zero integration” policy.
  • Cessation and withdrawal of international protection: Back in 2020, a new provision introduced an additional cessation clause,[32] in contradiction to the Refugee Convention,[33] and the Qualification Directive.[34] The law permits cessation or revocation of the international protection if the 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. The undue cessation of international protection has affected 4,364 status holders in total since then, respectively – 770 persons in 2018; 2,608 persons in 2019; 886 persons in 2020 and 100 persons in 2021.[35]

 

 

 

[1]  Euractive, ‘Bulgarians Vote for Change’, 5 April 2021, available in English at https://bit.ly/3r2W45N.

[2] The Sofia Globe, ‘Bulgarian President Radev names Stefan Yanev as caretaker MP’, 11 May 2021, available in English at: https://bit.ly/3cK9b3e.

[3]  21 July – 16 September 2021.

[4] Euronews, ‘Bulgarian elections: New anticorruption PP party in a surprise lead after Sundays’ vote, 11 November 2021, available in English at: https://bit.ly/3CHUCIk.

[5]  See, AIDA update on Bulgaria, January 2018, Overview of the main changes since the previous report update, Content of international protection: Integration, page 12.

[6] Dariknews, Дебатът на годината: Радев vs Герджиков, 18 November 2021, available in Bulgarian at: https://bit.ly/3kWWoPJ.

[7]  2020: 3,525 asylum seekers / 2019: 2,152 asylum seekers.

[8] Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, На живо от турско-българската граница / Live from the Turkish-Bulgarian border, 7 February 2022, available on YouTube at: https://bit.ly/3rwQd8z.

[9]  2020 Annual Tri-Partite Border Monitoring Report, 2.2. Situation on entry, 25 April 2021: 12,523 prevented entries and 4,658 non-admissions at official BCPs, available in English at: https://bit.ly/3GyZaTL.

[10] Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) among Border Police, UNHCR and Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, signed on 14 April 2010. See, 2021 Tri-Partite Annual Border Monitoring Report.

[11] This applied only to 0.5% (55 cases) of all new arrivals registered and/or determined in detention centers.

[12] This concerned 31 asylum seekers in closed reception facilities in 2021, compared to 9 asylum seekers in 2020.

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

[14] COVID-19 National Information Portal, available in Bulgarian at: https://bit.ly/3DB2YBN; National Parliament, Law on the measures and activities during the emergency situation, State Gazette No.28 from 24 March 2020, available in Bulgarian at: https://bit.ly/3ooXjrE.

[15] State Agency for Refugees (SAR), Measures against the COVID-19 pandemic, 23 March 2020, available in Bulgarian at: https://bit.ly/3scfjbk.

[16]  Supreme Judicial Council, Preventive measures against COVID-19, 15 March 2020, amended on 19 May 2020, amended on 2 June 2020, amended on 10 November 2020, amended on 17 November 20202, amended on 1 June 2021, available in Bulgarian at: https://bit.ly/3DB9p7V.

[17]  Recognition rate of the determined cases: 37% in 2021; 37% in 2020; 30% in 2019; 36% in 2018; 36% in 2017, 43% in 2016; 90% in 2015; 94% in 2014 from all determinations on the merits[17]. Refugee status recognition: 11% in 2019; 15% in 2018; 17% in 2017, 25% in 2016; 76% in 2015; 69% in 2014. Subsidiary protection: 16% in 2019; 21% in 2018; 19% in 2017, 19% in 2016; 14% in 2015; 25% in 2014.

[18] National Parliament, Amendments on the Law on Asylum and Refugees (LAR), State Gazette No.89 from 16 October 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/2LoUMiG; Article 25 LAR.

[19] Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2021 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, available in English at: https://bit.ly/3Ad4wlt.

[20] In 2021, a total of 1,550 unaccompanied children terminated their procedures, i.e. 49% of all children.

[21]  UNICEF, ref. No. O-20-051 from 1 June 2020;

[22] Supreme administrative court, ref. No.490 from 18 June 2020.

[23] Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2021 Situation report, 10 February 2022: 76 decisions in total, 62 negative decisions, of which 14 decisions overturning a positive decision of the first court instance.

[24]  Protection Working Group, 12 January 2022.

[25]  Article 29 (9) LAR.

[26] Article 29 (1) LAR.

[27]  SAR, Order No 31-310, 31 March 2015, issued by the Chairperson Nikola Kazakov.

[28]  Article 29 (3) LAR.

[29] National Employment Agency, Exh. No.10-00-4797#1 from 20.12.2021.

[30] SAR, Exh. No. РД05-26 from 14.01.2022.

[31] IOM, ‘Official opening of the first Safety Zone for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Bulgaria’, 29 May 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/2RnAG7N.

[32]  Article 42 (5) LAR.

[33]  Article 1C of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

[34] Article 11 and 16 recast Qualification Directive.

[35]  SAR, Exh. No. РД05-26 from 14.01.2022

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