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Bulgaria ‘Imprisoning’ Asylum Seekers for Longer Periods, Report

A new report says that although asylum seeker numbers have tumbled in Bulgaria, the authorities still routinely detain them in 'prison-like' closed centres – and for longer periods of time.
Asylum seekers in a Bulgarian camp near Haskovo. Photo: Vassil Donev, EPA. 

Although the number of asylum seekers in Bulgaria has fallen drastically, by a factor of over 11, since the crisis peaked in 2015, most people entering the country and seeking asylum are treated as “irregular migrants” and are detained in closed centres.

These are the conclusions of a report compiled by the Sofia-based Foundation for Access to Rights, FAR, published on Monday.

Between 2015 and 2017, it noted, over 57,000 people were apprehended on entry, exit or within the borders of Bulgaria and most of them sought asylum in the country.

Data obtained by FAR from the Bulgarian Interior Ministry and State Refugee Agency said over 48,000 of these people were placed in immigration detention centries. About 45,000 of these sought asylum while in detention.

Those sent to the closed camps of the Migration Directorate of the Interior Ministry spent an average of 52 to 59 days in practical detention last year – up from about 15 to 20 days in 2016.

“Although the number of third-country nationals who crossed the Bulgarian border irregularly dropped significantly from 31,281 in 2015 to 2,989 in 2017, immigration detention has remained the main tool for migration management and recourse to it has even increased. Furthermore, the length of immigration detention has also increased,” the report concludes.

Despite formally calling the closed centres “temporary accommodation”, the authorities in practice deprive people of the fundamental right to liberty, the report noted.

“These centres are not homes. The buildings where detention takes place have the infrastructure of a prison: high walls, barbed wire, grills, security guards, cameras and restricted access.

“However, unlike prisoners, who have the right to go on home leave for good behaviour, detained immigrants are not allowed to leave the centre. They do not know the period of time for which they will be detained. Some cases extend for weeks, others for months or even years,” FAR concluded.

The three centres where immigration detainees are placed are at Bousmantsi, near Sofia, Lyubimets, near Haskovo, and at the Elhovo distribution centre.

Interviews with detainees carried out by FAR revealed numerous complaints about the material conditions of the detention centres, including bed bugs, lack of access to toilets at night and no special provisions for minors and infants. Lack of language interpreters was also noted as a concern.

The foundation said most devastating consequences from the detention for the asylum seekers was that it left them abandoned.

“If I go back [home], I am going to die,” one detainee in Busmantsi told FAR, but “bringing me here is like killing me softly”.

BIRN asked the Interior Ministry and the refugee agency to comment on the report, but received no reply by the time of publication.