“I thought how beautiful shoes are, there can never be ugly shoes in this world, all shoes are beautiful” – the words of A.H., an Afghan citizen granted humanitarian status in Bulgaria, pushed back in a particularly humiliating way to the territory of Turkey on 27-28 April this year, forced to walk barefoot with bleeding feet for days.
by the undersigned organisations
In the beginning of June 2022, Mr. A.H., an Afghan citizen granted humanitarian status, who had been a victim of forced expulsion from Bulgaria, the country that had granted him protection, approached the organization Caritas Sofia for assistance. The case of Mr. A.H. synthesizes the established pattern of particularly serious violations of fundamental human rights at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, as expressed in the more than 150 alerts received by the NGO sector this year alone, as well as another 1,681 cases involving 23,742 persons identified at the same border by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee under the tripartite monitoring mechanism for the period from 1 January to 30 June 2022.
On 27 and 28 April 2022, according to his statements, Mr A.H. was removed from Bulgaria to the territory of Turkey on three different occasions, not in accordance with the established procedure and not at the established checkpoints, following a police check. He had his Bulgarian identity card taken away illegally and without due procedure, he was handed over to various Ministry of Interior officers, he was beaten repeatedly, he was strip-searched and his clothes, shoes, money and telephone were taken away from him, and he was left in a helpless and humiliated state.
During his subsequent detention on Turkish territory, he stayed in a detention centre for illegal migrants and was subsequently imprisoned. Mr A.H. was in imminent danger of deportation to Afghanistan, the country from which he had fled and for which reason he had been granted protection and status in Bulgaria. The circumstances described by Mr A.H. occurred when he attempted to help his younger brother, who had entered Bulgaria through the land border with a broken leg, reach a registration and reception centre of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), where he could apply for international protection. Mr. A.H.’s minor brother with a broken leg was turned back together with Mr. A.H. in Turkey and accorded the same treatment.
The described case of Mr. A.H. differs from the other push-back alerts in that the complainant in the present case is fully identified, has been granted protection in the Republic of Bulgaria, has managed to return legally to our country and the alleged events contain details with a high degree of credibility. A report is being prepared to the prosecutor’s office on this case and we will inform you about the developments in due course. The Office of the Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria has also undertaken its own investigation ater being notified of the case.
The escalation of forced pushbacks in Bulgaria and Europe has been widely reported. On 26.05.2022 a scathing report on Bulgaria was published by the global organisation Human Rights Watch: “Bulgarian authorities are beating, robbing, stripping, and using police dogs to attack Afghan and other asylum seekers and migrants, then pushing them back to Turkey.” On 29.04.2022, it was reported that the Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), Fabrice Legheri, was stepping down from his post in connection with the initial findings of the long-running investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog (OLAF), which revealed how the agency’s own reporting system was being used to cover up pushbacks in the Aegean sea and its direct involvement. On 07.04.2022 the Human Rights Committee of the Council of Europe published a Recommendation to the Governments and Parliaments of the Member States in relation to addressing the gross violation of human rights with the practice of forced pushbacks at EU borders. Since 2014, the BHC’s annual border monitoring reports have brought to light hundreds of cases of suspected pushbacks affecting thousands of individuals, which continue to increase each year. On 29.06.2022, a video documentary with the stories and interviews of asylum seekers turned away from the Bulgarian border was premiered, made by Center for Legal Aid -Voice in Bulgaria and Mission Wings.
As organizations working for the protection of fundamental human rights and values in our country, we strongly oppose the violent, unlawful actions being carried out at the borders of the Republic of Bulgaria, which reinforce the suspicion not just of individual violations by border officials exceeding their authority, but of an established institutional practice and state policy.
These crises place us at moral crossroads where we are faced with making a civilizational choice. The issue of the violent pushbacks is one for which there is no inappropriate moment to ask ourselves where we want to go and whether such incidents correspond to our notions of a European state governed by the rule of law.
The described case once again raises the question of the ways and means by which our state border is secured, as well as the need for urgent legislative and practical changes to create fully legal means of legal access to territory and procedure for people seeking asylum and protection.
We believe that the establishment of legal procedures for legal access to the territory of the Republic of Bulgaria, under the conditions laid down in the law, is the only correct response that would serve both to prevent organised crime in the field of smuggling and trafficking in human beings, in the interests of national security and public order, but also to effectively protect the rights of the most vulnerable people in need of protection and asylum.