Special reception needs of vulnerable groups


Country Report: Special reception needs of vulnerable groups Last updated: 18/04/24


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The law provides a definition of vulnerability. According to the provision “applicant in need of special procedural guarantees” means an applicant from a vulnerable group who needs special guarantees to be able to benefit from the rights and comply with the obligations provided for in the law.[1] Applicants who are children, unaccompanied children, disabled, elderly, pregnant, single parents taking care of underage children, victims of trafficking, persons with serious health issues, psychological disorders or persons who suffered torture, rape or other forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence are considered as individuals belonging to a vulnerable group.[2]

There are no specific measures either in law or in practice to address the needs of these vulnerable categories, except for some additional practical arrangements in place to ensure the provision of medication or nutrition necessary for certain serious chronic illnesses, e.g. diabetes, epilepsy, etc. The law only requires that vulnerability has to be taken into account when deciding on accommodation, but this is applied discretionally, and no guidelines on the application of such a criterion are provided by the SAR. In 2018, the SAR adopted new internal rules of procedure whereby social experts provide assistance to its staff during the initial medical examination so as to enable the early identification of vulnerable applicants and their special needs.[3] If an applicant is identified as vulnerable, the new rules foresee that the vulnerability will be added to the registration form, including a detailed explanation and a follow-up assessment to be described in an appendix. Additionally, an early identification questionnaire was established for applicants who experienced traumatising experiences in order to determine their special needs and to facilitate the referral to adequate psychological or medical care.[4]

In 2022, the overall lack of due vulnerability assessment and identification remained the most significant omission during the asylum procedure.[5] Monitoring in 2023 established that the overall lack of vulnerability assessment and identification remained the most significant omission during the asylum procedure.[6] The SAR’s social experts attended 50% of the registrations of asylum seekers. Out of these, 24% related to cases of unaccompanied children. Only in 6% of all these cases the files of vulnerable asylum seekers contained a vulnerability identification and needs assessment, with an attached individualised support plan. In none of these cases (0%) the established vulnerability was taken into account in the first instance decision on the asylum claim of the individual involved. In the remaining 50% of the cases the registration of asylum seekers was carried out without the presence of a SAR social expert and without any guarantees for early identification of their vulnerabilities. Thus, in practice the vulnerability assessment is still missing in 50% of the monitored cases. Additionally, needs assessment as well as planning and provision of support measures with respect to applicants with identified vulnerabilities are carried out yet sporadically than systematically.

An applicant’s belonging to a vulnerable group has to be taken into account by the authorities when deciding on accommodation.[7] In practice, except the two safe-zones for unaccompanied children other separate facilities for vulnerable applicants, families, single women or traumatised asylum seekers do not exist in the reception centres.

Families, single women and traumatised asylum seekers are not accommodated in separated facilities, but in separate floors in the reception centres’ facilities, mainly due to the overall lack of SAR reception capacity.[8] There is no formal policy to prevent mixed-sex accommodation, however in practice the single women and the families are accommodated in separate floors in Sofia centres and separate buildings in Harmanli reception centre. These floors are equipped with separate toilets and bathrooms. No specific measures are put in place in reception centres to prevent gender-based violence, except separate accommodation of single women, families and safe-zone for the unaccompanied children. All SAR social workers are female, however the interviewers and the interpreters often are not from the same sex as the asylum seeker, neither the information about the right to have one from the same sex is provided in all cases, but just in 9% of the cases about the possibility to request the same sex interviewer and only in 20% about the possibility to request an interpreter of the same sex or gender.


Reception of unaccompanied children 

In July 2017, the State Agency for Child Protection and national stakeholders developed SOPs to safeguard unaccompanied migrant and refugee children identified to be present in Bulgaria. Although the SOPs for unaccompanied children were endorsed by the National Child Protection Council,[9] the final formal endorsement by the government has not been formally given up to the moment, which makes the developed SOPs for unaccompanied children inapplicable in practice. As of 31 December 2023, no progress was achieved in this regard. (see section on Identification).

A safe zone for unaccompanied children in the refugee reception centre (RRC) of Sofia at the Voenna Rampa shelter with capacity to accommodate 150 children is available since mid-2019, [10] where children are provided round-the-clock care and support tailored to their needs. However, only unaccompanied children originating from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan are accommodated in this centre. This being said, some Afghan children were also accommodated in other reception centres such as the RRC of Harmanli in 2021. A second safe-zone at the RRC Sofia, in the Ovcha Kupel shelter, opened on 20 January 2020 with capacity to accommodate 138 children hosts primarily children originating from Arab speaking countries. Both safe-zones are operated by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Bulgaria and funded by AMIF, and their operativity was extended until the end of 2023. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in RRC Harmanli continue to be accommodated in mixed dormitories and in many cases in rooms with unrelated adults. These children often complain to be deprived of sleep due to noise, gambling or alcohol consumption during the night by the adults accommodated in their rooms, or by being forced to run errands for them such as shopping, laundering or cleaning. Many also complain that their food or possessions are often taken by the adults with whom they live together. At the end of 2022, the SAR management[11] and UNICEF agreed to cooperate for the opening of a third safe-zone for unaccompanied children in Harmanli reception centre through funding provided by Swiss Federal Service. The zone is expected to become operational in March 2024, after the completion of the necessary refurbishment and logistics.

The LAR provides that unaccompanied children are accommodated in families of relatives, foster families, child shelters of residential type, specialised orphanages or other facilities with special conditions for unaccompanied children.[12] In practice, none of these opportunities was used or applied until 2022, when the SAR began to actively search for opportunities to accommodate unaccompanied children in licensed family-type children’s centres (ЦНСТ). During the procedure such efforts were undertaken with regard mainly to minor asylum-seeking children, children with special needs or such identified as being at increased risk of trafficking or harm. After the recognition these efforts targeted all unaccompanied children, excluding those in family reunification procedures, who were allowed to wait the reunification with their parents or other family members in SAR reception centres.[13] As a result of this positive practice, a total of 43 unaccompanied children were accommodated during the course of the year in specialized childcare centres, of whom 2 were asylum seeking children and 41 children granted international protection. Altogether eleven licensed childcare centres have engaged in this practice in localities across the country, namely in Sofia, Burgas, Vidin, Ruse, Kardzhali, Novo Selo and Zvanichevo. At the same time, the lack of specialized training of the childcare centre’s staff to work with unaccompanied children seeking or granted protection should be acknowledged and taken into account as well as the lack of secured interpretation at least for the initial period of accommodation and adjustment. Altogether ten licensed childcare centres have engaged in this practice in localities across the country, namely in Sofia, Burgas, Vidin, Ruse, Kardzhali, Novo Selo and Zvanichevo. At the same time the lack of specialized training of the childcare centre’s staff to work with unaccompanied children seeking or granted protection should be acknowledged and taken into account.

At the end of 2017, the EEA Grants secured considerable funding for the State Agency for Child Protection as well as for the Bulgarian Red Cross to jointly establish and run an Interim Care Centre for unaccompanied children, proposed and endorsed by UNICEF and UNHCR. As far as until 31 December 2021 this centre was not established the donor withdrew the funding.

In 2021, following the incidents and fire at the Greek Moria Camp, Bulgaria pledged to relocate unaccompanied children. Out of 32 children who initially consented to be relocated to Bulgaria, only 17 arrived by the end of 2021 and were accommodated in a specially prepared unit in Harmanli reception centre.


Reception of victims of violence

Back in 2008, the SAR and UNHCR adopted standard operating procedures (SOPs) with respect to treatment of victims of Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV).[14] In 2014, both agencies agreed that the SOPs need to be updated,[15] as they have never been applied in practice, but also to include other categories applicants with special needs. At the end of 2021, SAR endorsed the revisions, but the NGOs monitoring could not confirm any implementation of the SGBV SOPs in practice until the end of 2023.[16]




[1] Additional Provision 1(16) LAR.

[2] Additional Provision 1(17) LAR.

[3] Article 29 SAR Internal Rules of Procedure; SAR, Internal Rules of Procedure for assessing and granting international protection, adopted on 17 December 2018.

[4] Early Identification and Needs Assessment form (ФИОН), Individual Support and Referral Plan form (ФИПП)  and Social Consultation form (ФСК).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2023 Annual Refugee Status Determination Monitoring Report, 31 January 2024, available at: https://bit.ly/3SX3ST7.

[7] Article 29(4) LAR.

[8] See Overview of the main changes since the previous report update.

[9] State Agency for Child Protection, ‘Тридесет и шестото редовно заседание на Националния съвет за закрила на детето се проведе в зала „Гранитна“ на Министерски съвет’, 11 July 2017, available in Bulgarian at: http://bit.ly/2FzwLxk.

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

[11] The SAR leadership was replaced in March-April 2022.

[12] Article 29(10) LAR.

[13] SAR, Rules and procedures on the accommodation of unaccompanied children granted international protection in foster families, social or integrated socio-medical care facilities for children of a residential type,  adopted in October 2022.

[14] Standard Operating Procedures on sexual and gender-based violence, Exh. No 630, 27 February 2008.

[15] UNHCR, SGBV Task Force, established on 15 February 2014.

[16] Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2023 Annual Refugee Status Determination Monitoring Report, 31 January 2024, available at: https://bit.ly/3SX3ST7.

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