State of the facilities
Since 2015 conditions in national reception centres in general have been deteriorating and as a whole, substandard, with support limited to accommodation, nutrition and rudimentary medical help without provision of psychological care or assistance. Apart from the Vrazhdebna shelter in Sofia and the safe-zone for unaccompanied children in Voenna Rampa and Ovcha Kupel shelters, living conditions in national reception centres remain poor, i.e. either below or at the level of the foreseen minimum standards and despite some partial renovations periodically conducted by the SAR. Except Vrazhdebna shelter and the two safe zones for unaccompanied children in Sofia reception centre, all the other SAR shelters and centres during this seven-year period were maintained solely in a survival mode and have been experiencing recurring problems with the infrastructure and the material conditions, at some instances failing to provide even the most basic services including adequate amenities for personal and community spaces hygiene. Regular water, hot water, repair of utilities and equipment in bathrooms, rooms and common areas remain problematic. Vermin infestation, such as bedbugs, lice, cockroaches and rats also remain among the most persisting problems in reception centers for many years. Occupants from all reception centres, except in Vrazhdebna, have complained about the poor sanitary conditions, especially regarding soiled mattresses infested with bedbugs which regularly cause health issues, i.e. constant skin inflammations and allergic reactions. This problem arose after 2013 and has been continuously neglected until 2022. Monthly disinfection, pest control and desacarization began in May 2022, on the basis of contracted services for a period of 12 months and was regularly carried out in all reception centers. However, crumbling buildings and poor sewage and bathroom conditions prevented any significant improvements in this respect and kept sanitation levels to, or below, the necessary minimum.
The running costs for medicines and medical supplies, Bulgarian language courses as well as urgent maintenance and refurbishment were met only to the extent of the remaining funds of a SAR AMIF project, which, however, ended on 31 December 2022. No tenders for supply of clothes, shoes or other basic items were held by the SAR due to the lack of any funds planned or secured for these necessities in its annual budget. In order to be able to meet these needs at least partially the SAR had to negotiate nine separate donor agreements throughout the year with different agencies, organizations and individuals, e.g. food products (Food Bank), mattresses, pillows, blankets, bed linen and hygiene packages (UNHCR with BGN 700,000 donation), medicines and medical supplies (Red Cross), textbooks and other school items (Caritas), toys and other children’s items (UNICEF).
Food and health
Since 2018, three meals per day are provided in all centres (i.e. packaged food), except to unaccompanied children to whom three meals are served a day. Both the quality and quantity of the food is regularly criticised by asylum seekers.
Asylum seeker’s nutrition in reception centres is provided under catering arrangements. In mid-2022, the catering contract started in 2020 expired. The new contracts, valid for a period of two years, agreed on BGN 6.00, equal to EUR 3.06 value for three daily meals, the lowest price condition within an already scarce SAR budget. These catering contracts will expire at the end of 2023, but just in 2022 the rate of inflation reached +17%. Towards the middle of the year, it forced the SAR’s new management to look for donations to secure the food provision of asylum seekers accommodated in its reception centres, for example – from 12 April to 15 May, the food in the largest Harmanli reception centre was provided entirely through donations. Apart from the mobilization of donors, the other factor that prevented asylum seekers hosted in reception facilities to suffer from malnutrition, was the above-mentioned high absconding rate of Afghan applicants, that would otherwise have also had access to reception conditions. This is particularly relevant as this nationality represents the second largest (7,164 individuals) in 2022 after Syrian applicants (8,598 individuals).
As already mentioned, the individual monthly allowance provided for in the law is not corresponded in practice. The only other assistance provided by the government are sanitary packages. The costs of prescribed medicines, lab tests or other medical interventions which are not covered in the health care package, as well as for purchase of baby formula, diapers and personal hygiene products, are still not covered, thereby raising concerns despite the efforts of SAR to address them through different approaches.
The running costs for medicines and medical supplies in 2022 were met only to the extent of the remaining funds of a SAR AMIF project, which, however, ended on 31 December. Preventive measures against the widespread infectious diseases, such as scabies and pyoderma, as well as provision of personal hygiene and treatment packages in 2022 were delivered through donations. Due to lack of budget, the Red Cross provided the major part of the necessary medicines. The country’s fundamental shortage of general practitioners was the main reason the medical care of asylum seekers was mainly carried out in the surgeries organised in Sofia and Harmanli reception centres with a total of 29,071 outpatient examinations until the end of the year. However the access of asylum seekers to repeated and specialized medical treatment remained impeded.
Activities in the centres
Places for religious worship are available in all the reception centres, but not properly maintained. Activities for children are organised in the reception centres, but not regularly and entirely on volunteer and NGO initiatives and projects. During previous years, Caritas continued to carry out language training and leisure activities for the children in the reception centres in Sofia and Harmanli with the support of UNICEF. The Red Cross also has conducted language courses and social adaptation classes to relocated asylum seekers in the Vrazhdebna shelter throughout the year. Psychological support and treatment was provided in centres in Harmanli (Red Cross) and Sofia and Banya centres (Nadya Centre).
The Red Cross maintained several language courses throughout the year including such organised after the working hours and during weekends for the needs of employed individuals. All children accommodated in the centres were supplied with laptops, purchased in 2021 by the Red Cross with AMIF co-funding, to secure children’s online access to primary and secondary education. In 2022 none of these laptops could be located by the new management of the SAR.
The most serious concern among all remained the safety and security of asylum seekers accommodated in the reception centres. Except for Vrazhdebna shelter in Sofia, the security of asylum seekers accommodated in reception centres is not fully guaranteed. Personal safety and security continue to be seriously compromised due to the presence of smugglers, drug dealers and sex workers who have access to reception centres during the night hours without any interference from the contracted security staff. Starting from May, the SAR began monthly security inspections along with targeted checks following separate security or public disorder complaints. During the period from 1 April to 23 December, SAR reported to have held numerous meetings with the security company’s management in attempt to mitigate the security concerns and address the identified security failures, including missing guards at some of the designated posts. In August, the non-governmental organisations raised alarm demanding concrete measures to ensure the personal safety in reception centres. After that, the SAR submitted several requests to the Ministry of Interior to provide police guards in replacement of private security of reception centres, but all requests were rejected, both by the Interior Minister of the regular government and from the new Minister within the caretaker cabinet. A police detail is granted only in the largest Harmanli reception centre, which, however, is just one and located at the central entrance, therefore insufficient to ensure the safety and security of nearly 4,000 individuals accommodated in. The rest of the reception centres continue to be guarded by private security companies, which for the purposes of cost effectiveness usually employ as guards predominantly men of retirement age or above and therefore, therefore security services are rather formal than real.
Some level of standardisation has taken place in the intake and registration procedure in reception centres. There is a basic database of residents in place, which is updated daily. However, there is an ongoing competition among asylum seekers to be accommodated in premises/rooms found to be in a better condition than others, thus corruption among SAR staff, who deals with accommodation issues, is widespread. For example, in February 2023 the BHC office in Harmanli reception center received reports that a former SAR employee continued to collect without problems a “monthly rent” of 50.00€ from asylum seekers accommodated in the container compartment within the centre.
The law does not limit the length of asylum seekers’ stay in a reception centre. Asylum seekers can remain in reception centres pending the appeal procedure against a negative decision. In December 2022, the SAR reported to have its reception occupancy at 61%, i.e. 2,412 occupants out of 3,932 available places, compared to 2,447 occupants at the end of 2021; 1,032 occupants at the end of 2020, and 461 occupants at the end of 2019.
 See, AIDA Country Updates on Bulgaria: Forth Update from October 2015, 2016 Update from February 2017, 2017 Update from February 2018, 2018 Update from January 2019, 2019 Update from February 2020, 202 Update from February 2021 and 2021 Update from February 2022.
 SAR, reg. No.РД05-72 from 26 February 2023.
 SAR, reg. No.РД05-72 from 26 February 2023.
 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, reg.No.Б-67 from 4 August 2022.
 SAR, reg. No.РД05-72 from 26 February 2023.
 Article 29(4)-(9) LAR.
 118th Coordination meeting held on 22 December 2022.