Refugees and migrants

Every individual has the right to live in, leave, and return to the country where they hold citizenship. Each year, millions of people make the difficult decision to leave their country in search of a better, safer life. These people are collectively referred to as “migrants.”

A migrant is a person who leaves their country in order to permanently settle elsewhere. There are various reasons to immigrate to another country—work, education, establishing a family, etc. Regardless of their motivations, however, immigrants leave their homes and move to new countries not because they are forced to do so, but because they made the decision of their own free will. As a result, the conditions for their entry into the country and access to its laws are subject to the general rules and laws of that state.

Refugees, on the other hand, are people who are forced to flee their country. The reasons for this are varied: fear of persecution, the violation of basic human rights, or threats to their lives and safety as a result of war or natural disaster. In some countries, those in power violate or restrict human rights and freedoms on the basis of religion, race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and political beliefs, among other reasons.

Consequently, international law offers a special type of residence permit to individuals residing in foreign countries, referred to as “asylum.” In Europe, this special type of residency is called “international protection.” Individual asylum-seekers may claim either refugee status or humanitarian status, while in the case of war or other disasters, refugees are collectively granted temporary protection.

Those seeking asylum and protection have the right to announce their request to the Bulgarian state authorities, regardless of how they entered or currently reside in the country (legally or illegally). This right is granted by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that refugees cannot be expected to fulfil the usual requirements for entry into a state, such as having a valid passport or visa or crossing the border only at official entry points.

BHC annually monitors the standards of the national asylum and international protection system, advocacy and lobbying for the improvement of national asylum and immigration legislation, and its accordance with European and international legal standards.

  • Monitoring and reports: We monitor the borders, administrative detention centres, and status proceedings before the State Agency for Refugees, which prevent the repatriation of refugees and protect their access to new territories and the protection process. We publish the results of this monitoring in specialized reports every year. The section on asylum rights from last year’s BHC report can be found here. Our special reports on the access to new territories and the efficacy of the refugee procedures can be found here.
  • Strategic litigation and legal aid: We provide legal aid to those applying for protection at the border, as well as assistance with legal proceedings, consultations, appeals against acts set by the state authorities, representation before the national and European courts, and other obstacles refugees may face. For the past twenty-six years we have been conducting educational trainings on refugee and immigration law for members of the administration—particularly those in the State Agency for Refugees and the Ministry of Interior—as well as judges, prosecutors, and legal representatives, including official lawyers from the National Office for Legal Assistance. We maintain legal help centres and a telephone line for consultations on individual cases related to refugee law and procedures, as well as a specialized website, asylum.bg.
  • Advocacy and campaigns: We organize campaigns for the protection of refugee rights, such as our campaign “Meet the refugees,” which aimed to inform the public about refugees residing in Bulgaria, and our campaign against the detention of asylum-seekers in closed police institutions. You can read more about myths surrounding refugees here.

In Bulgaria, the main problems faced by refugees are:

  • Border control and safety: The Directorate-General for Border Police still do not translators at their disposal along the entire border. As a result, asylum-seekers cannot explain their reasons for wanting to enter Bulgaria or request asylum and protection. There is no practical mechanism or clear assignment of roles to help border police separate refugees from illegal immigrants.
  • Rejection of asylum-seekers: Due to the problem mentioned above, individuals at the border are universally rejected, regardless of whether they are fleeing from war and violence or simply looking for a way to bypass the laws for entry and residence.
  • Abusive treatment of refugees: Furthermore, border police often employ reprehensible, humiliating practices such as verbal and physical abuse, public stripping and searching, and illegal confiscation of clothes and personal items—including money and valuables—with no consideration of the gender, age, or physical state of the individual.
  • Reception facilities: Living conditions in the accommodation centres continue to fall short of the minimum required standards. Some of them, such as the centre in Harmanli, even saw their conditions worsen during 2021. Except for the centre in Sofia’s Vrazhdebna neighbourhood and the secure zones for unaccompanied children, all centres repeatedly display poor infrastructure and living conditions. They fail to meet even the most fundamental human needs, such as basic personal hygiene and clean public and private spaces. Furthermore, the safety and security of the inhabitants are not fully guaranteed, since individuals involved in racketeering, prostitution, and drug-dealing can enter the centres with little intervention from security.
  • Discriminatory proceedings against certain nationalities: Asylum requests made by foreigners from countries outside of Syria are recognized and granted at very low rates. Requests coming from certain countries—such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Bangladesh—are systemically treated as illegitimate and are therefore reviewed in expedited proceedings and are almost never approved. Turkish and Afghan citizens have been discriminated against for years and face extremely low rates of approval—less than 10% per year. Since 2016, the majority of annual asylum requests made in Bulgaria come from Afghanistan. In spite of this trend, or rather as a result of it, a large percentage of asylum requests made by Afghan citizens are rejected—more than 90%—suggesting rampant discrimination.
  • Judicial control becoming less effective: The effectiveness of the judicial system—the only independent body which reviews and controls the initial decisions made by the refugee administration—has been continuously undermined. In January 2020, the chairman of the Supreme Court definitively transferred jurisdiction over refugee cases from the Third to the Fourth Chamber. International and non-governmental organizations appealed to the Supreme Court chairman to reconsider this decision in order to prevent the loss of experience and legal expertise in the realm of asylum, but he refused. As a result, more than 80% of cases reviewed on points of law over the last few years produced an unfavourable result for the refugees, with 20% of them involving the Supreme Court’s annulment of beneficial decisions previously made by the second-instance courts.
  • Integration: The Ordinance on the Integration of Refugees and Persons with Humanitarian Status, first passed in 2016, then repealed and reinstated in 2017, has never worked. Since its adoption, none of the governments in power have approved specific rules and budget funds to encourage their municipalities to adopt integration plans and measures. Consequently, the total lack of integration of refugees in Bulgaria has continued for eight years.