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(Sofia) – Bulgaria has embarked on a “Containment Plan” to reduce the number of asylum seekers in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The plan has been carried out in part by summarily pushing back Syrians, Afghans, and others as they irregularly cross the border from Turkey.

The 76-page report, “Containment Plan: Bulgaria’s Pushbacks and Detention of Syrian and other Asylum Seekers and Migrants,” documents how in recent months Bulgarian border police, often using excessive force, have summarily returned people who appear to be asylum seekers to Turkey. The people have been forced back across the border without proper procedures and with no opportunity to lodge asylum claims. Bulgaria should end summary expulsions at the Turkish border, stop the excessive use of force by border guards, and improve the treatment of detainees and conditions of detention in police stations and migrant detention centers.

“Slamming the door on refugees is not the way to deal with an increase in people seeking protection,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch. “The right way, simply, is for Bulgarian authorities to examine asylum seekers’ claims and treat them decently.”

In recent times, Bulgaria has not been a host country for significant numbers of refugees. On average, Bulgaria registered about 1,000 asylum seekers per year in the past decade. That changed in 2013 when more than 11,000 people, over half of them fleeing Syria’s deadly repression and war, lodged asylum applications. Despite ample early warning signs, Bulgaria was unprepared for the increase. A February 5, 2014 report by the Interior Ministry said, “Until mid-2013 Bulgaria was completely unprepared for the forecasted refugee flow.”

Human Rights Watch documented Bulgaria’s failure to provide new arrivals with basic humanitarian assistance in 2013, including adequate food and shelter at reception centers that often lacked heat, windows, and adequate plumbing. Human Rights Watch also found poor detention conditions and brutal treatment in detention centers; inadequacies in asylum procedures, including long delays in registering asylum claims; shortfalls in its treatment of unaccompanied migrant children, including failure to appoint legal guardians; and an absence of viable programs to support and integrate recognized refugees.

On November 6, the Bulgarian government established a new policy to prevent irregular entry at the Turkish border. This “containment plan” entailed deploying an additional 1,500 police officers at the border, supplemented by a contingent of guest guards from other EU member states through the EU’s external border control agency, Frontex. Bulgaria also began building a fence along a 33-kilometer stretch of the Turkish border. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 177 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in various locations in both Bulgaria and Turkey. Of these, 41 gave detailed accounts of 44 incidents involving at least 519 people in which Bulgarian border police apprehended and returned them to Turkey, in some instances using violence.

“Abdullah,” an Afghan asylum seeker interviewed in Turkey in January 2014, said that the Bulgarian border police began beating him immediately after they caught him and a few others, and showed Human Rights Watch interviewers his scars.

“After beating me, the police brought me over to their superior who pointed to his boot as if because of me his boot was dirty,” he said. “So he ordered the soldier to beat me. First, he beat me with his fist in my stomach and then with the butt of his gun on my back so I fell down, then he kicked my ribcage while I was lying down. One of my bones in my lower back is broken…. They kept beating my head and my back. First one soldier and then another. I tried to escape but they caught me and beat me even more. They even beat me as they were dragging me to the car. They put three of us on the back seat of the jeep. I wasn’t even thinking about pain, all I was worried about was my wife and child,” who had become separated from him as the police approached. 

Abdullah said that the police drove for about 30 to 45 minutes, stopped, and then started walking: “While we were walking he kept hitting me with his stick. The walk was about 200 meters and I was beaten all the way. When we reached the border, the soldier showed the direction to Turkey.”

With the help of the European Union, the humanitarian situation in Bulgaria has improved in 2014, but this coincides with the pushback policy, a precipitous drop in arrivals of new asylum seekers, and a 27 percent decrease from the number of refugees the country was hosting in late 2013. The European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against Bulgaria, calling on it to answer allegations that it broke EU rules by summarily returning Syrian refugees.

“Reception conditions in Bulgaria have improved compared with the abysmal conditions we witnessed in late 2013,” Frelick said. “But these improvements are less impressive when seen in the context of Bulgaria’s efforts to prevent asylum seekers from lodging refugee claims, which violate the country’s refugee law obligations.”

The Bulgarian Council of Ministers referred to their new policy as a “plan for the containment of the crisis.” But the migration “crisis” Bulgaria faced in 2013 should also be seen in context:In the first five weeks of 2014 – at a time when 99 asylum seekers succeeded in crossing from Turkey to Bulgaria – more than 20,000 Syrian refugees entered Turkey, the country to which Bulgaria was pushing back asylum seekers. Turkey is currently hosting more than 700,000 Syrians, according to UNHCR.

“Bulgaria, of course, is faced with a humanitarian challenge and its capacity to meet that challenge is limited,” Frelick said. “Even with limited capacity, however, shoving people back over the border is no way to respect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants.”

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