By Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria*
By virtue of its geography, Bulgaria is likely the most important land border of the European Union with regards to recent migration flows and Europe’s efforts to keep asylum seekers off the continent’s territory. It borders both Turkey, where millions of refugees reside and which is the main transit route and the last country before reaching Europe for many migrants from the Middle East and Africa, and Greece, the European starting point of the now closed Balkan route.
The Bulgarian government boasts that it has the best guarded border in Europe. Recent developments indicate a further tightening of the border and a legalisation of push-backs, raising serious concerns about the right to seek asylum and access to procedure for those trying to reach Europe by land, especially in light of the EU- Turkey deal from 18 March 2016, which closes the alternative route through the Greek islands.
The Bulgarian-Turkish border, with a length of about 260 km, is by far the most common entry point of migrants into the country: according to data provided by the Ministry of Interior, in the first half of 2016, 2,315 of the 2,654 persons arrested for trying to enter Bulgaria illegally were apprehended at the border with Turkey, almost all of them at the “green border” rather than at a checkpoint. It is important to mention that all are considered illegally residing foreigners upon entry, even if they have the intention to apply for international protection, as the status of asylum seeker and thus the right to be on the territory of the country are not conferred until the claim is registered and an asylum seeker card is issued.
On May 5, 2016, the Bulgarian government signed a Protocol with Turkey for the application of the Readmission Agreement between Turkey and Bulgaria. The text has not been made publicly available, and it is only known that it is meant to specify the concrete conditions and procedures for carrying out the readmission of third country nationals from Bulgaria to Turkey, including the selection of responsible officials and border crossing points, deadlines, particularities of handing over the third country nationals, etc.
This Protocol, which was approved by the Bulgarian Council of Ministers on 22 June 22 2016, has been applied in practice on the Bulgarian side since 1 June 2016. Reportedly, Turkey has stalled the implementation – on 22 June the Bulgarian Minister of Interior Rumyana Batchvarova stated that there had been no response from the Turkish authorities, indicating an official refusal to take back refugees, and that up to that point, only several Turkish citizens had been returned while 200 requests made by Bulgaria were declined by Turkey. The most recent statistics from the Ministry of Interior show that from 1 June to 1 July, a total of 437 requests had been sent and just 11 people were actually returned back to Turkey. The Protocol is reportedly to be discussed and adopted by the Turkish Parliament. If fully implemented, which appears to be the most likely outcome, it will essentially hinder the majority of asylum seekers coming by land from Turkey from claiming asylum in the EU.
As to the Bulgarian-Greek land border, the projected and feared snowballing of the incoming migrant wave after the closing of the Balkan route and the agreement allowing Greece to return people to Turkey has not fully materialised. The numbers have increased, but not substantially: 332 people in total were apprehended while trying to cross that border into Bulgaria during the first half of 2016. What is worrying is that the Bulgarian authorities are immediately returning potential asylum seekers coming in from Greece, such as a group of 56 Afghani nationals who were on a train headed from Greece to Bulgaria in May 2016, without examining their cases individually, as required by the Dublin regulation and other EU and international legal instruments.
*The story was originally published in the EPC Policy Update for the European Programme for Integration and Migration for July 2016, http://www.epim.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Final-EPIM-Policy-Update-July-2016.pdf