Special reception needs of vulnerable groups


Country Report: Special reception needs of vulnerable groups Last updated: 21/04/23


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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 2022 established that needs assessment was conducted in 67% (145 of 350 cases) when vulnerability or special needs were actually established.[6]  However, only in 18% of all these cases the files of vulnerable asylum seekers contained vulnerability identification and needs assessment, and only in 7% of them the files contained an attached support plan. In none of these cases (0%) the identified vulnerability was taken into account in the first instance decision. In the remaining 33% 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, if such existed. However, unaccompanied children’s files continue to lack the mandatory social report by the respective statutory child protection service from the Agency for Social Assistance (ASA). It has been confirmed that these reports are prepared in practice, but only a very few are shared with the case workers. The social reports, if properly prepared and communicated, could play a vital role not only in the asylum procedure, but also after it to outline the measures which need to be taken with respect to the child depending on the outcome of the procedure – rejection or recognition. Such mandatory social reports with needs assessment in 2022 could be found just in 24% of the monitored children’s files.[7] Moreover, only 1 of these reports contained a proper risk assessment, while the rest were purely formal. Thus, in practice the vulnerability assessment is still missing in 33% 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.[8] 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.


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 yet, which makes the developed SOPs for unaccompanied children inapplicable in practice. As of 31 December 2022, 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 2022. 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 new SAR management[11] and UNICEF agreed on funding for a third safe-zone for unaccompanied children to be open in Harmanli reception centre, which is expected to become operational at the end of 2023 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, whom 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 26 unaccompanied children were accommodated during the course of the year in specialized childcare centres, of whom 2 were asylum seeking children and 24 children granted international protection. 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 during 2022.[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, 2022 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, published on 1 March 2023, available at: https://bit.ly/3Jkd3t0.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Article 29(4) LAR.

[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, 2022 Annual RSD Monitoring Report, published on 1 March 2023, available at: https://bit.ly/3Jkd3t0.

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