The ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria has led to an inundation of refugees in neighboring countries, and some not-so-neighboring ones.
Bulgaria, for instance, has processed over 9,000 asylum applications since January 1, 2013.
As the poorest country in the European Union (EU), Bulgaria has nevertheless emerged as a leading destination for Syrian refugees in Europe. Among European countries, its Syrian refugee population is exceeded only by those in Sweden, Germany, and Italy.
But Bulgaria is already inundated with social and economic afflictions of its own. Its national electric company and its national health insurance fund are each at the brink of bankruptcy, and violent xenophobic protests have become dizzyingly commonplace since 2013.
No Warm Welcome
Over three million refugees have fled Syria since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011—including several thousand who have arrived in Bulgaria. “Now,”BBC News reported earlier this year, “most of them are stuck in bedraggled camps.”
By all accounts, the conditions of refugees in Bulgaria—from Syria and elsewhere—are dire.
In one camp, Haaretzreports, there are no beds, only thick wooden boards scattered across the floors, and the indoor temperatures routinely dropped below zero. “Whatever the horrors of war they left behind,” a PBS correspondent remarked grimly last December, “nothing prepared these Syrians for a European welcome as warm as this.”
In January, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) halted the transfer of refugees to Bulgariaunder the Dublin II Regulation, an EU law that assigns asylum applications to EU member states on the basis of family ties and other criteria.
UNHCR’s assessment concluded that asylum-seekers in Bulgaria routinelyfaced arbitrary detention, lacked access to basic services (such as food and health care), and were denied fair andconsistent asylum procedures.
But in April, after undertaking a reevaluation of the country’s asylum situation, UNHCR abruptly reversed its position, citing “numerous improvements that have been made to reception conditions and the asylum procedure in Bulgaria since the beginning of the year.”
Although the report identified certain categories of asylum-seekers for whom Bulgaria would still be an unsuitable destination, such as children or the elderly, the residual deficiencies no longer justified a general suspension of Dublin transfers to Bulgaria.
The Problem of Pushbacks
One thing the updated UNHCR report touched upon is “pushbacks”—the practice of preventing asylum-seekers from entering a receiving country in contravention of international law. (Some non-entréemeasures, such as the collective rejection of a group of people without consideration of each person’s individual circumstances, are explicitly prohibited under EU law.)
Accounts of pushbacks at the Bulgarian border have been rife and widespread.
“Violence against refugees involving beatings, humiliation, and disregard of human dignity continuously takes place at the border, in detention camps, and on the streets throughout [Bulgaria],” Border Monitoring Bulgaria (BMB) reported back in April, in the same month that UNHCR lifted the suspension of Dublin transfers to Bulgaria.
Later that month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a comprehensive report on the conditions of Bulgaria’s borders and migrant detention centers.
The report, “Containment Plan:Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and Other AsylumSeekers and Migrants,” catalogued summary expulsions and rejections of asylum-seekers, physical abuse by Bulgarian police (including beatings and the use of electric shocks), and the confiscation of personal possessions by border guards, culminating in the unflinching conclusion: “At almost every stage of their efforts to seek refuge in Bulgaria, [asylum-seekers] have faced physical and bureaucratic barriers, violent abuse, and hardship.”
Not Just Sofia’s Choice
But the accounts of pushbacks at the Bulgarian border should not be viewed in isolation either: reports of illegal non-entréemeasures havebeen documented across southern and eastern Europe, from Spain and Italy to Greece and Ukraine.
This past April, Amnesty International published “Greece:Frontier of Hope and Fear: Migrants and Refugees Pushed Back atEurope’s Border,” a report highlighting the expulsion of migrants andasylum-seekers arriving either in the Aegean Sea or at the land border between Greece and Turkey.
After interviewing 67 asylum-seekers (mostly Syrian refugees), the report found that more than half had experienced illegal pushbacks at least once, with some incidents betraying “a complete disregard for the safety of migrants and refugees” on the part of government officials—including the abandonment of asylum-seekers at sea “in unseaworthy vessels.”
Citing the widespread mistreatment of refugees and asylum-seekers by Bulgarian and Greek officials, both HRW and AmnestyInternational explicitly recommended that the EU halt the transfer of asylum-seekers to either Bulgaria or Greece under the Dublin II Regulation—yet as of today, both countries are fully integrated into the EU’s Common European Asylum System.
The accounts of illegal non-entrée measures by officials in Greece, Bulgaria, and elsewhere, not to mention the panoply of other abuses against asylum-seekers documented by multiple news and human rights organizations, merit a bustling response from the national governments of both Greece and Bulgaria, up to and including the tightening of oversight at the national borders—not of the entrants, but of the guards.
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