EU must ban transfers of asylum seekers to Bulgaria until country “sets affairs in order”

European countries must not transfer any asylum seekers to Bulgaria until the country truly improves its demeaning reception conditions and addresses its asylum procedures, said Amnesty International.

On 1 April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is due to announce its position on the issue after it called for a suspension of all transfers of asylum seekers to Bulgaria in January. It cited poor conditions in reception facilities and problems with the overall treatment of refugees.

“Bulgaria is still widely ‘missing the mark’ when it comes to its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. EU member states must halt all transfers and take responsibility for the thousands of men, women and children in desperate need of help,” said Jezerca Tigani, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International.

Under EU regulation, asylum seekers can be returned to Bulgaria if it is the first country through which they have entered the EU.

During a visit to Bulgaria this month, Amnesty International found that, despite some progress, living conditions in some of the reception centres continue to be inadequate.

“Bulgarian authorities have started fixing the reception facilities but they are still failing to tackle systemic deficiencies. These include detention of asylum seekers and overcrowding, poor sanitation and inadequate provision of food,” said Jezerca Tigani.

In a reception centre in Harmanli, 45 kilometres away from the Bulgarian-Turkish border, all refugees had been moved from tents to partially renovated buildings with toilets and showers and in Voenna Rampa, construction works were being carried out.

However, in Harmanli overcrowding persists with as many as seven people living in small containers measuring seven square metres. In Voenna Rampa, around 600 residents share six showers and 12 toilets. The authorities said that after the reconstruction there will be a toilet for every 17 people and a shower for every 62.

Thousands of men, women and children, particularly from Syria, entered Bulgaria through the Turkish border in the last three months of 2013. However, since then, numbers have dropped significantly as Bulgaria has virtually shut down its borders and deployed approximately 1500 additional police officers to the area.

Any person who crosses the border to Bulgaria irregularly is automatically detained and transferred to a closed “distribution centre” for screening interviews. Asylum seekers should be transferred to an open reception facility run by the State Agency for Refugees (SAR).

Bulgarian authorities claim that over the past few months, the State Agency for Refugees has increased its capacity and is tackling asylum requests and processing registrations faster.

While welcoming this improvement, Amnesty International believes it is partly due to the fact that numbers of applicants have dropped significantly since borders have been shut.

“The improvements Bulgaria has made so far are little more than a band aid on a gaping wound. Much more needs to be done,” said Jezerca Tigani.

“The UNHCR must continue to call for the suspension of transfers of asylum seekers to Bulgaria from EU countries. Until there are further improvements in both the reception conditions and asylum procedures, the situation of people in these detention centres will continue largely unchecked.”