We met Hassan on a rainy day in a reception centre for refugees and asylum-seekers in Harmanli, Bulgaria, about an hour’s drive from the Turkish border. He shares a room with seven other Syrians who made their way to Europe to flee the armed conflict.
He told us how he finally made it to Bulgaria in March 2014 – on his ninth attempt.
“I tried eight times before that but I was sent back by the Bulgarian police. [They] would take my stuff, on one occasion even my clothes, pointed their guns to my head and told me to go back to Turkey,” Hassan said.
He recalled that he always crossed a fence and recognized the police by their green uniforms bearing the Bulgarian flag. He alleged that they would ask him where he was from and even when he said Syria, he was pushed back across the border.
More than seven months ago, we visited the Bulgarian border police detention centre in the town of Elhovo. Back then, it was full of hundreds of people who had fled armed conflict and other hardship in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and a number of African countries. They were sleeping in makeshift camps in appalling conditions, unaware of what would happen to them.
Little over half a year later, the same detention centre in Elhovo – where the Bulgarian border police transfer all newcomers after they cross the border – seemed to be half-empty. In mid-July, there were only 22 people there – around a tenth of the more than 200 people held there during our visit in November 2013.
Such sharp declines in the number of newcomers, along with the Bulgarian authorities’ admission that there was a need to respond to “enhanced migratory pressure”, raise questions about what is really happening at the Bulgarian-Turkish border.
This week, we met again with the Bulgarian Border Police, State Agency for Refugees and the Migration Directorate and paid a visit to some of the reception centres to talk to the dwindling number of refugees who actually made it to Bulgaria. It was there that we met Hassan and others, who shared their stories of being forced back across the border.
Another Syrian man, Yusuf, first tried to cross the Bulgarian-Turkish border in December 2013. He, too, was met with resistance:
“The police caught me at a fence. They called an officer and asked where I was from. I told them I was from Syria but they sent me back,” Yusuf said. Like Hassan, he explained that the police officers had green uniforms with a Bulgarian flag on them. They spoke some English and asked him if he had friends further down in the forest.
He also alleged that they pointed guns at his head and told him and a friend to go back to a Turkish village that was visible from the hill where they were standing. “So we went back. Eventually we ran into Turkish soldiers whom we told that we were sent back by the Bulgarian Border Police. They told us to go to Edirne [a town close to the Turkish side of the border].”
In July the NGO Border Monitoring Bulgaria published a report which records 14 cases of push-backs involving 50 people. In April, Human Rights Watch alleged that it documented 44 cases of push-backs involving more than 500 people. Amnesty International has also documented cases of push-backs on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, albeit a smaller number.
These push-backs continue to be a hotly contested issue in Bulgaria. The government continues to deny any allegations of forced returns from the border. Somewhat unexpectedly, the Bulgarian Minister of Interior breathed new life into the debate on push-backs on 3 July when he declared in the media that: “The pressure is doubling. With the Border Police… we manage to prevent illegal border entry of between 150 and 200 people a day. It costs us a lot of effort to do this, as they are changing the way of entry as well as the entry points.”
The Bulgarian officials that we met during our visit explained that by “prevent” he probably meant that the Border Police officials inform their Turkish counterparts before would-be migrants or asylum seekers ever reach the border.
Enhanced cooperation with Turkey at the border is indeed considered to be a priority. The chief of the Bulgarian Border Police told us that their aim is to introduce “joint patrols” to make border protection even more effective. This may well be considered a legitimate and lawful interest of a state. But when one hears the chief of the State Agency for Refugees’ take on the issue, it raises serious doubts about the way the system works in Bulgaria: “We are not a humanitarian institution… Our responsibility is not to allow on Bulgarian territory those who can pose threats to Bulgarian and to European society.”
When it’s put as bluntly as this, one can hardly avoid thinking that Bulgaria, just like neighbouring Greece, is more concerned with the “dirty work” of keeping migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers out rather than living up to its international obligations.
Note: The names have been changed to protect the identities of the men interviewed.
Take action:SOS Europe campaign
Read more:The human cost of Fortress Europe: human rights violations against migrants and refugees at Europe’s borders(Report, 9 July 2014)
Fortress Europe: Facts and figures (Fact sheet, 9 July 2014)
EU must ban transfers of asylum seekers to Bulgaria until country “sets affairs in order” (News story/report, 31 March 2014)
Bulgaria shamed over asylum-seekers (News story, 3 January 2014)
On the fringes of Europe, no warm welcome for refugees in Bulgaria (Blog, 14 November 2013)