“Please take me back to Lyubimets!”
Those were the words of a 17-year-old unaccompanied Afghan boy I met in December in the emergency center in Harmanli, a town in south-central Bulgaria not far from the Turkish border. The fact that the boy preferred Lyubimets – a prison-like detention center – to the supposed refugee camp in Harmanli, speaks volumes about Bulgaria’s inexcusable failure to deal with the thousands of refugees flooding into the country, many from war-torn Syria.
Harmanli is operated by the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees as a closed refugee camp of sorts. I had interviewed the Afghan boy days before at Lyubimets, a detention center for undocumented migrants operated by the Ministry of Interior. Routine detention of unaccompanied children contravenes international law.
Harmanli holds about 1,400, mainly Syrian, asylum seekers in deplorable conditions. I saw people living in rotting tents, unfinished buildings without insulation or heating, and without windows. Despite being the responsibility of the Bulgarian refugee agency, it has no staff in Harmanli and provides no food or other assistance to those trapped there. The camp residents try desperately to maintain some degree of organization, including by coordinating distribution of private charitable food donations. I saw the 17-year-old Afghan boy and 25 other asylum seekers in Harmanli dropped off by bus, left there to fend for themselves and not allowed to leave.
The situation at Harmanli epitomizes the dismal state of the asylum system in Bulgaria, and shows how poorly the authorities have coped with the large influx of mainly Syrian asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in 2013. The Bulgarian government’s multiple failures force asylum seekers to live in inhumane living conditions. Asylum seekers are detained because open centers, where migrants don’t have restricted freedom of movement, are full. Unaccompanied children are being detained with adults, and not being assigned legal guardians. Shortage of staff and slow asylum registration procedures put asylum seekers at risk of deportation, as asylum seekers are considered irregular migrants until their claims are registered. UNHCR in January called for a temporary suspension of returns of asylum seekers from other EU countries to Bulgaria due to the inhumane conditions and concerns over access to asylum.
Bulgaria and the EU both need to take immediate action to address this disgraceful state of affairs and to comply with EU and international standards on the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants. The fact that a 17-year-old boy travelling alone prefers a prison-like detention center where he gets food to a supposed refugee camp shows the scale of the failure and the need for an urgent response.