The Bulgarian-Turkish border is seeing an upsurge in pushbacks and violence against migrants. InfoMigrants uncovers the reasons why and who are the most at risk.
*This article is the first in a four-part series. All research and interviews were conducted between June and August 2023, with field reporting in Bulgaria carried out between June 18 and 24, 2023.
The Bulgarian-Turkish border has seen a growing number of pushbacks and violence against migrants in the last year, prompting human rights workers to demand accountability. But with a culture of impunity within Bulgaria’s police force and the country’s ambitions to join Schengen by the end of 2023 – combined with the European Union’s goals of curbing irregular migration – justice anytime soon seems unlikely.
Pushbacks are “a very serious problem” in Bulgaria, Krassimir Kanev, chair of the human rights non-profit Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, told InfoMigrants. His office in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia has dealt with scores of cases concerning violent pushbacks and migrant deaths on Bulgarian soil.
“There have been many cases of physical ill treatment, sometimes resulting in death…and use of firearms,” he told InfoMigrants.
Last year alone, an estimated 5,270 pushbacks affecting 87,650 people occurred at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, according to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Actual numbers, however, are believed to be much higher.
The figure is almost double the number registered in 2021 – some 2,510 pushbacks involving nearly 45,000 people. In 2020, the Committee reported that around 15,170 people were affected.
Pushbacks happen when a country uses measures to force refugees and migrants out of their territory while obstructing access to legal counsel and other support. They are prohibited under European Union (EU) and international law, violating the 1951 Refugee Convention principle of non-refoulement, which provides that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.
In interviews carried out in Bulgaria in mid-June, migrants, humanitarian workers and human rights experts confirmed to InfoMigrants that violence against migrants and pushbacks at the Bulgarian-Turkish border have increased in the last two years.
The Bulgarian government, however, maintains that “checks have been carried out of formal pushback signals made by foreigners who tried to illegally cross the state border of Bulgaria. The checks ended with the finding that there was no evidence of physical violence.”
“It should be noted that many of the claims of ‘pushbacks’ are unfounded,” a ministry spokesperson told InfoMigrants.