On 2 January 2014, UNHCR concluded in its Observations on the Current Situation of Asylum in Bulgaria that asylum seekers “in Bulgaria face a real risk of inhuman or degrading treatment, due to systemic deficiencies in reception conditions and asylum procedures” and calls upon all EU Member States to suspend all transfers to Bulgaria under the Dublin Regulation, in accordance with jurisprudence of both the Court of Justice of the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights.
UNHCR highlights that practice has shown that persons who have applied for asylum in Bulgaria are at risk of being subjected to arbitrary detention, given the absence of a legal basis in Bulgarian law and detention for uncertain and lengthy periods of time. Contrary to jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, an amendment to the Bulgarian Law on Asylum and Refugees was proposed in November 2013 to allow for the systematic detention of asylum seekers in closed centres.
UNHCR expressed concern with regards to persons who have previously claimed asylum in Bulgaria and who are transferred back to Bulgaria on the basis of the Dublin Regulation as they are often denied access to an effective examination of their asylum applications. As transfers back to Bulgaria, in most cases, exceed three months – the time limit for asylum seekers to appear for their asylum interview after registering their asylum claim with the Bulgarian authorities – the majority of returnees is no longer eligible for asylum in Bulgaria and subjected to detention pending removal. A return to Bulgaria could therefore create a risk of refoulement for these persons, as the absence of having their asylum claims processed in a timely and efficient manner, might lead to their refoulement to a country where their lives will be at risk.
UNHCR also pointed at the well-known problem of Bulgaria’s reception system, i.e. reception facilities are overcrowded, with one centre being 198% over capacity. UNHCR re-emphasised that “[c]onditions in the reception centres are deplorable”. Apart from the problem of overcrowding, the absence of effective identification of those with special reception needs, provision of basic needs or access to medical care lead to a violation of international and European standards of reception conditions.
UNHCR lastly reports on the increase of xenophobic behaviour, including incidents of violence, against asylum seekers in Bulgaria, which renders integration of asylum seekers into society, in a safe and secure environment, even more difficult.
UNHCR believes that in the period between January and December 2013 more than 9,100 people had applied for asylum in Bulgaria, among whom were over 4,000 Syrians. These numbers do not include persons who have entered Bulgarian territory and left due to Bulgaria’s deficient asylum and reception system. UNHCR mentioned that between 1 January and 18 November 2013, a total of 12,176 non-EU Member State nationals have been apprehended for irregular entry into or exit from Bulgaria. UNHCR is thus concerned that persons in need of international protection are at risk of being denied entry to Bulgaria, of being detained and prosecuted for irregular entry or presence and of not receiving access to effective registration and assessment of their asylum claims, thereby creating a risk of refoulement.
UNHCR proposes to re-assess the situation as of 1 April 2014. In the meantime, UNHCR commits to work with Bulgaria, EASO and other partners in improving the country’s reception conditions and asylum procedure.