Schengen in Sights, EU and Frontex Overlook Violent Bulgarian Pushbacks

Internal documents show Frontex and the European Commission are well aware of Bulgaria’s dire human rights record on its border with Turkey, but the EU’s executive arm had other priorities – expanding Schengen.


Migrants and refugees, mainly from the Middle East, North Africa or Asia, are routinely referred to as “Taliban” and sometimes reportedly bitten by police dogs or shot at, the report said.

But despite the prevalence of such practices, the author said that migrants are not fingerprinted or asked for their basic info, nor are there recordings or reports, “no traces” of these “interventions”. The author sourced the information in the report to conversations with 10 Bulgarian border officers.

Frontex border guards, the officer wrote, are intentionally kept away from “’hot’ points’ where such pushbacks usually occur. “They [Bulgarian border officers] have instructions not to allow FRONTEX to see anything or they would have to do an official report.”

In a written response, also seen by BIRN, the Bulgarian Chief Directorate of the Border Police said it had found no information concerning “unethical behaviour” by its border officers.

The report, however, joined a pile of evidence that leaves Frontex once more vulnerable to accusations it has been overlooking systematic abuses of human rights on Europe’s borders.

Dozens of internal Frontex and European Commission documents, given to BIRN under EU Freedom of Information rules, point to serious neglect on the part of not just Bulgarian authorities but EU officials as well when it comes to addressing evidence of grave and persistent human rights violations on Bulgaria’s borders, evidence that appears to have been swept under the carpet in the process of bringing the country into Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.

Previously blocked by the Netherlands and Austria due to concerns over “irregular” immigration and corruption, Bulgaria and Romania were granted partial accession, via air and sea borders, late last year, with the decision due to enter into force at the end of March.

Despite already being implicated in pushbacks in Greece, BIRN’s investigation poses fresh questions of Frontex’s ability to guarantee human rights in operations it is part of, even after new executive director Hans Leijtens reportedly promised to “restore trust” in the agency when his appointment was announced in January 2023.

“It is astonishing that an EU Agency is still unable to uphold EU law after so many institutional investigations, reports, recommendations and warnings,” said Tineke Strik, a Dutch MEP and member of a European parliamentary group tasked with scrutinising the work of Frontex.

Decrying what she called “systematic shortcomings”, Strik told BIRN: “This shows that even though the Agency has a new director, problems are far from being solved.”

Bulgaria had “an order” in terms of what it needed to do to clinch Schengen membership, said Diana Radoslavova, director of the Sofia-based non-profit Centre for Legal Aid “Voice in Bulgaria”.

“It is the border which has to be effectively closed,” she said. “In order to fulfil this order we do whatever it takes, in extreme violation of human rights.”

‘Public secret’

Equipments of EBCG policeman are seen during the official launch of the European Border and Coast Guard at the check point Kapitan Andreevo some 350 km from Sofia, Bulgaria, 06 October 2016. Photo by EPA/VASSIL DONEV

Leijtens replaced Fabrice Leggeri, who resigned in April 2022 over the findings of the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF, that Frontex had violated internal rules intended to protect human rights by its involvement in pushbacks in Greece and Malta, and that senior leadership knew.

The new leadership promised change, but a trove of documents obtained by BIRN points to multiple ‘serious incident reports’ registered by the FRO up to mid-2023; they contain graphic details of alleged brutality inflicted by Bulgarian border officers involved in Frontex operations, including individuals being beaten with sticks, forced to strip naked, robbed of their belongings, verbally abused, and harmed by police dogs. And then they are forced to cross back into Turkey.

The evidence was so compelling that, in an ‘overview’ of serious incident reports, or SIRs, covering 2022 and part of 2023, the FRO, headed by Jonas Grimheden, wrote that “so-called pushbacks, often involving high levels of violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, are a regular practice by the Bulgarian border police.”

Frontex increased its presence on the ground in Bulgaria under Joint Operation Terra, which was launched in early 2022. By the end of that year, Bulgaria’s interior minister at the time, Ivan Demerdzhiev, said Bulgaria had prevented 160,000 migrants from entering EU territory; another 165,000 “illegal entry attempts” were thwarted between January and October 2023, current minister Kalin Stoyanov was reported as saying.

Iliana Savova, director of the Refugees and Migrants Programme at the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, said this was untrue.

“We claim, according to our sources and our regular analysis, that those people have been intercepted inside the country. So we are not talking about prevented entry, but about return, an informal one” she told BIRN. “We all know what the term is: ‘pushback.’”

According to data produced by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee under a tripartite asylum monitoring and support agreement with the United Nations refugee agency and the Bulgarian border police, in 2022 alone there were 5,268 alleged pushbacks involving 87,647 persons.

“It is a public secret that people are being pushed back,” a senior government official told BIRN on condition of anonymity. “There are orders.”

The interior ministry, however, said that only “isolated cases” of pushbacks had been confirmed and each one investigated. Most allegations are “unfounded”, it told BIRN.

“The smugglers tell migrants to file alerts in order to compromise the reception system, driven by their willingness to continue their journey to Western Europe – their desired destination,” the ministry said.

Child vanished

Police officers of European Border and Coast Guard stand on duty, during the official launch of the European Border and Coast Guard, in Kapitan Andreevo Check Point, on the borders of Bulgaria with Turkey. Photo by EPA-EFE/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU


In the wake of the pushback scandal in Greece and Leggeri’s departure, FRO’s Grimheden grew increasingly concerned that Frontex could also be “indirectly implicated” in rights violations in Bulgaria, according to a FRO report to Frontex management.

According to internal emails seen by BIRN, in early December 2022, three months before Leijtens took over, Grimheden’s office circulated a report among senior Frontex officials at its Warsaw headquarters concerning the alleged disappearance of a boy detained by two Frontex officers in a forest along Bulgaria’s border. The officers had “handed over” the boy to Bulgarian border guards, and he vanished without a trace, the report stated.

FRO warned that the boy, a minor, “might have been unlawfully removed and expelled from Bulgarian territory by Bulgarian officers”. The child’s fate remains unknown, Grimheden told BIRN in January.

Asked for a response, Bulgaria’s interior ministry told FRO in October 2022 that it had no record of an “illegal migrant detained” in the reported area. FRO took its concerns to Aija Kalnaja, who at the time was Frontex’s acting director after Leggeri had left.

In an email, Kalnaja, a Latvian former police officer, replied: “Shame I missed it earlier, met in the Council the minister and I could have raised it. Oh well, it is what it is.” The Council Kalnaja referred to was attended by Bulgaria’s then interior minister, Demerdzhiev.

In mid-February 2023, still officially the Frontex acting director, Kalnaja raised the FRO’s concerns with the then head of Bulgaria’s border directorate, Rositsa Dimitrova.

Kalnaja “encouraged” Dimitrova to grant Frontex officers access to “first line checks and border surveillance activities”, and noted there are “serious concerns regarding allegations of fundamental rights violations that need to be proactively addressed”.

Dimitrova brushed aside the worries, insisting that “respect of the fundamental rights of third-country nationals is a top priority” for her directorate.

In a response to BIRN, Bulgaria’s interior ministry said the border police and its new leadership “do not tolerate cases of abuse and violence against persons crossing the border illegally” and that all allegations with sufficient information to be verified are investigated.

In the first 10 months of 2023, five border guards were punished for ethics violations, the ministry said in an answer to an FOI request.

Some experts, however, doubt the ministry’s rigour in investigating its own.

“All reports drown and all answers are: this never happened,” said Savova. “We have been facing this phenomenon for 20 years.”

‘They threw me in the canal’

Police officers of European Border and Coast Guard stand on duty in Kapitan Andreevo Check Point, on the borders of Bulgaria with Turkey, 06 October 2016. Photo by EPA/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU


A 16-year-old asylum seeker from Syria, speaking via a translator on condition of anonymity, described to BIRN his own experience of unlawful detention and pushback.

In late spring 2022, more than a decade into a devastating civil war in Syria, the then 15-year-old entered Bulgaria irregularly and went to an open reception centre for refugees and migrants in the capital, Sofia, to submit a claim for asylum. Instead of being registered and provided with information regarding his rights, the boy said he was taken to a building that resembled a “prison”.

That night, he said he was driven with dozens of other people in border police cars to the    border with Turkey, 300 kilometres away.

“They made us walk to the fence that had cameras on it,” he said. “After we passed the fence, there was something like a canal … and we had to crawl through it. While we were crawling, they were hitting the people. Everyone.”

“I had 20 lev [some 10 euros] with me and I told them, ‘Take it, take whatever I have, just don’t beat me.’ They took everything and hit me on the back, on the head.”

Two days after Leijtens took over from Kalnaja at the start of March 2023, the FRO drafted a letter that it suggested Leijtens send “in whole or part” to Dimitrova.

The FRO did not hold back. In its letter, the office highlighted “persisting allegations of irregular returns (so-called ‘pushbacks’), accompanied by serious allegations of mistreatment and excessive use of force by national border police against migrants”. It demanded Frontex officers to “be more effectively used” in the areas “where allegations of fundamental rights are reported”, better cooperation with the FRO, and independent investigations of rights violations.

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But the letter was never sent, BIRN has found based on FOI requests and communication with the Frontex press office.

Instead, the documents obtained by BIRN indicate that concerns about large-scale mistreatment of migrants in Bulgaria have been brushed aside in the process of bringing Bulgaria into the Schengen zone, something the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has long wanted.

‘Repeated’ pushbacks

Early last year, Bulgaria and Romania, both of which have been seeking to join the Schengen zone for the more than a decade, were “volunteering” countries to pilot a scheme to prevent “irregular arrivals” and strengthen “border and migration management” via “accelerated asylum procedures” and the speedy deportation of those rejected.

Bulgaria received a total of 69.5 million euros in additional EU funds to implement the project, and Frontex deployed additional border guards and surveillance equipment.

“All activities under this pilot,” the Commission stressed in a June 2023 annex to the agreement, “are to be conducted in full respect of EU law and fundamental rights, in particular the principle of non-refoulement”.

But even then, both Frontex and the Commission were well aware of the dire human rights record of the Bulgarian border police.

Security fences on the border between Bulgari and Turkey, near the town of Elhovo, some 300 kilometers from Sofia, Bulgaria, 07 July 2014. Photo by EPA/VASSIL DONEV


Some two months before the pilot was launched, senior European Commission officials, including the then director for Border, Schengen and Visa affairs under Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, met with Dimitrova  “to discuss the FRO’s concerns as regards allegations of fundamental rights violations”, according to a so-called ‘flash report’ from a January 2023 Frontex Management Board meeting. The discussion happened on the margins of the board meeting.

Towards the end of the pilot, and despite progress in terms of Frontex participation in “front-line land patrolling activities”, Grimheden once again alerted Frontex top brass to “repeated allegations of” pushbacks and excessive use of force by Bulgaria’s border police.

“Yes, we remain concerned and keep stressing this in various ways,” Grimheden told BIRN in January.

When asked whether the FRO had communicated ongoing concerns about violent pushbacks directly to the Commission, he said FRO “raises concerns on a regular basis” to the Frontex Management Board “where the European Commission is participating” and that “in addition, there are regular exchanges of information”

Asked whether Leijtens had raised any of the FRO’s findings regarding pushbacks with Bulgarian authorities, Frontex’s press office told BIRN that in cases of reported violations “the matter is escalated to the Executive Director and, when necessary” discussed in Frontex board meetings with state representatives. The press office, however, did not provide any information about Leijtens personally raising these concerns with Bulgarian officials. .

Despite Grimheden’s repeated warnings about human rights violations, in public the Commission was delighted with Bulgaria’s performance in the pilot.

“The results are excellent,” Johansson said in October last year, hailing the Bulgarian and Romanian authorities’ efforts at preventing “irregular” migrants from entering EU territory in support of the “absolutely necessary decision” to bring Bulgaria into the Schengen zone.

A few weeks earlier, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed Romania and Bulgaria’s role in “leading the way – showcasing best practices on both asylum and returns”.

“So let us finally bring them in – without any further delay,” she said.

Austria was the last holdout, blocking Bulgaria and Romania’s Schengen accession over concerns about “irregular” migration.

Strik, the Dutch MEP, said it was clear that the Commission’s “sole purpose” was to “prevent irregular entrance into the EU, and it is willing to do so at any costs, sacrificing fundamental rights and EU values along the ride.”

“But as long as Bulgaria will cooperate on good terms with the protection of borders and implementation of the pilot project, the Commission is happy to sweep allegations under the carpet or look into the other direction.”

Asked whether the pilot project was conducted in “full respect” of EU law, a Commission spokesperson stated that the Commission will work with Bulgarian authorities to “further strengthen the existing national independent mechanism to monitor fundamental rights compliance”.

This article has been produced with the financial support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Thessaloniki. Its content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the Foundation’s views and opinions.

Source: Balkan Insight