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Two Iraqi men died from hypothermia at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, after Bulgarian border guards allegedly beat the Iraqis when they attempted to cross into Bulgaria – an incident that is only the latest horrible reminder of the crisis at European Union borders. Today, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has rightly called on Bulgarian and Turkish authorities to investigate the incident, which happened in mid-March.

The two men were traveling in a group of 12 Iraqis, all of them reportedly members of the Yazidi religious minority, who, facing persecution by the radical group Islamic State (also known as ISIS), were likely to qualify as refugees under the Refugee Convention. According to the media report, the survivors claimed that Bulgarian border guards violently rejected them at the border, an illegal practice known as “pushbacks.”

Violence and summary returns at Bulgaria’s border with Turkey have been a serious concern since mid-2013. One year ago, Human Rights Watch documented 44 incidents involving at least 519 people in which Bulgarian border police apprehended and summarily returned people – mainly Syrians and Afghans – to Turkey, sometimes using violence.

In doing so, Bulgaria is violating EU and international law by denying people access to the asylum procedure, and possibly violating the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits returns of asylum seekers and refugees to places where their lives and freedoms would be threatened. Because Turkey hasn’t agreed to every aspect of the Refugee Convention, it says it is not legally bound to accept refugees from non-European countries like Syria and Iraq.

Bulgarian authorities denied all allegations of pushbacks, referring to them as “blatant lies.” The European Commission sent a letter to Bulgaria – the first step in legal action – concerning allegations that it broke EU rules by pushing Syrians back to Turkey, but has since been silent on the issue. Human Rights Watch documented new evidence in August and September suggesting that violent pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants were continuing on the Bulgaria-Turkey border.

Ill-treatment and pushbacks of asylum seekers are illegal, wrong, and should not be tolerated by the EU. The European Commission should hold member states accountable when they breach EU and international law. EU institutions should ensure that Bulgaria investigates allegations of abuses at its borders and holds responsible officials accountable for their actions.  

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