The UN Human Rights Committee finds that a deportation of two Syrians to Bulgaria would amount to inhuman or degrading treatment

In its views adopted in the case of R.A.A. and Z. M. v. Denmark[1] on 15 December 2016, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee (HRC)[2] found that the deportation of two Syrian refugees from Denmark to Bulgaria would amount to a violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The article stipulates that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The authors of the complaint to the HRC are a couple of Syrian nationals who entered Bulgaria in June 2014. They claimed that upon arrival they were stopped by the Bulgarian police and that the male author was subjected to physical abuse. On arrival to the police station, they were once again victims of abuse and were detained for 5 days. Their belongings were taken away and not returned. Once released, they were sent to a reception facility. The authors indicated to the HRC that the conditions in the reception facility were very bad. The authors further claimed that, as a result of the unsanitary conditions at the reception facility, the female author got an infection in the lower abdomen, and that she approached the doctor at the asylum center, but she was denied medical assistance and was told that the system would collapse if all asylum seekers received treatment for their diseases.

The authors also indicated that the male author suffers from a heart condition in the form of an enlarged heart muscle, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood. They alleged that he had collapsed in the reception facility, but that he was only given painkillers. Then, he went to the local hospital, but was rejected at first and later his appointment was postponed several times. The authors further submitted to the HRC that they were physically attacked on the street by a group of 4-5 people and the attack was racially motivated. The Bulgarian police did not assist them.

Both of them received refugee status from the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees in September 2014 and were informed that they should leave the reception center where they had been accommodated while their asylum claims were considered. The authors reported to the HRC that they had not been offered any assistance: their small allowance was cut, they received no help in finding accommodation, and they had no access to medical care or schooling. As a result they ended up living on the street for a couple days before they managed through some friends in the reception centers to sneak back in and lived there in hiding until they departed for Denmark in December 2014.

On 15 December 2014, the authors arrived in Denmark and applied for asylum the same day. On 4 May 2015, the Danish Immigration Service (DIS) rejected their asylum applications, because they had been granted protection in Bulgaria. They were ordered to leave Denmark immediately. The DIS considered that the authors’ personal integrity and safety would be protected during their entrance and stay in Bulgaria. On 6 May 2015, the authors appealed the decision of the DIS to the Refugee Appeals Board (RAB). On 9 July 2015, the RAB upheld the decision of the DIS.

The RAB relied on an UNHCR report to conclude that the Bulgarian government addresses and condemns racist attacks, based on the fact that in February 2014, following an attack on a mosque, the authorities arrested 120 people. Therefore the RAB concluded that the authors could rely on the Bulgarian authorities to protect them, and that their safety would be protected to the extent necessary.

The HRC, considering the merits of the case, concluded, however, that the Danish authorities’ conclusion did not adequately take into account the information provided by the authors based on their own personal experience. The HRC stated that despite having been granted a residence permit in Bulgaria, the authors still faced intolerable living conditions there. In that connection, the HRC noted that the Danish authorities had not explained how, in case of a return to Bulgaria, the residence permits would protect them, in particular as regards the access to the medical treatments that the male author needed, and from the hardship and destitution which they had already experienced in Bulgaria, and how would that also affect their baby who had been born meanwhile.

The HRC recalled that States parties to the ICCPR should undertake an individualized assessment of each and every case, and that they should not rely, as in this case, on general reports and on the assumption that, as the authors had been granted refugee status, that would somehow protect them in the future from the mistreatment they already suffered. In fact, in the absence of any assistance from the national authorities when they were in Bulgaria, the authors were not able to provide for themselves, notwithstanding the grant of international protection. The HRC also noted that the authors had a one-year-old baby, and considered that these circumstances were of extreme importance putting the applicants in a particularly vulnerable situation that was not sufficiently taken into account by the Danish authorities.

The HRC further noted that the Danish authorities had failed to seek proper assurances from the Bulgarian authorities that the authors and their baby would be received in conditions compatible with their status as refugees and with the guarantees under Article 7 of the ICCPR.

Therefore, the HRC found that in the light of the particular circumstances, the removal of the authors and their child to Bulgaria, without the proper assurances, would amount to a violation of Article 7 of the Covenant.

The Danish authorities are required to send to the HRC, within 180 days, information about the measures taken to give effect to the HRC’s views. They are also requested to publish the HRC’s views and to have them widely disseminated in their official language.

The HRC’s decision on this case is not unexpected, given the ongoing poor situation of migrants in Bulgaria. Since 2013, the authorities’ anti-immigrant rhetoric, often uncritically transmitted by media, has contributed to increased tensions in Bulgarian society. This has led to riots in different cities and villages against the possible accommodation of asylum seekers and refugees in the area. It has led also to a number of xenophobic or racist attacks, and other hate crimes against migrants, and to the rise of militant groups “hunting” migrants in border areas. Furthermore, the absence of any form of integration plan or strategy on the part of the Bulgarian authorities is now notorious. The state has made little to no efforts to implement any integration activity, such as language classes or housing support, since the previous running integration strategy ended in 2013. Upon granting of a protection status or refusal asylum seekers are required to leave the reception centers without any assistance whatsoever from the state further on. Thus, the fate of the family concerned in the R.A.A. and Z. M. v. Denmark case is, sadly, the rule rather than the exception. The hope remains that the HRC’s views will serve as a trigger for Bulgarian authorities to improve their treatment of migrants and the reception conditions it provides.

[1] See Views adopted by the Committee under Article 5(4) of the Optional Protocol, concerning communication No 2608/2015, 15 December 2016, available at:

[2] The Human Rights Committee is the UN body that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.