Bulgarian authorities have started fixing the reception facilities and increasing the capacity to process asylum applications. But there are still systemic deficiencies including the detention of asylum seekers, overcrowding, poor sanitation and inadequate provision of food
Bulgaria still missing the mark on refugees and asylum seekers
(01 April 2014) European countries must refrain from transferring asylum seekers to Bulgaria until the country truly improves reception conditions and access to asylum procedures, said Amnesty International. Under European Union (EU) regulation, asylum seekers can be returned to Bulgaria if it is the first country through which they have entered the EU.
On 1 April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will announce its position on the issue following its call to suspend all transfers of asylum seekers to Bulgaria in January. It cited poor conditions in reception facilities and problems with the overall treatment of refugees.
During a visit to Bulgaria this month, Amnesty International found that, despite progress, living conditions in some of the reception centres continue to be inadequate.
“Bulgarian authorities have started fixing the reception facilities and increasing the capacity to process asylum applications. But there are still systemic deficiencies including the detention of asylum seekers, overcrowding, poor sanitation and inadequate provision of food,” said Jezerca Tigani, Europe and Central Asia Deputy Programme Director at Amnesty International.
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 work was being carried out.
However, in Harmanli overcrowding persisted with as many as seven people living in small containers measuring about ten square metres. In Voenna Rampa, around 600 residents were found to share six showers and 12 toilets. The authorities said that after the reconstruction there will be one toilet for every 17 people and one 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 are among those who are detained at the border as well as in detention centres until they are transferred to an open reception facility run by the State Agency for Refugees.
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 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 asylum seekers in Bulgaria will remain precarious.
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