'Zero Integration Year': Refugees Get No Support in Bulgaria

Push-backs at the border, discrimination against asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa and no integration plan—this is the picture described in a new report on the situation of refugees in Bulgaria.

No integration perspectives for persons being granted international protection, refugees being pushed back at the border with Turkey and discrimination against asylum seekers from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa in detention highlight the new AIDA report on Bulgaria, written by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

The report calls 2014 "zero integration year." Recognized refugees received no integration support in Bulgaria during 2014, apart from being allowed to stay in reception centers for six months after being granted asylum. As a consequence, 23% of the individuals accommodated in reception centers (850 people) by January 2015 were recognized refugees. Refugees continue to have extremely limited access to basic social, labor and health rights, and their willingness to permanently settle in Bulgaria has decreased to a minimum.

The report details that 6,400 people who had fled Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, were refused access to Bulgaria and were returned to Turkey in 2014. Since January 2015, Bulgaria has intensified border controls and police officers at the borders have been replaced by the army.

In 2014, reception conditions in centers for asylum seekers achieved minimum standards. However, the UNHCR expressed concerns regarding the sustainability of these improvements, especially considering that at the end of last year, 6,873 asylum seekers were facing return to Bulgaria under the Dublin Regulation. As of January 2015, Bulgaria’s reception and registration centers had the capacity to host 5,650 people.

The study also underlines that 96% of the persons seeking asylum at the border (3,851 people) were detained at Elhovo Allocation Center in 2014. Here, asylum seekers stay for three to six days before moving to reception centers, well beyond the maximum 24 hours allowed by national law. The average detention period in other centers decreased from 45 to 11 days in 2014.

The report also stresses that detained asylum seekers from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa are discriminated against regarding their release and access to international protection. The authorities register, interview and judge in the detention centers the applications lodged by people from these regions, who are released only if they challenge these procedures and win a court-ordered release.

Finally, decisions on asylum cases in 2014 took an average of six months to reach. Syrian asylum seekers (the majority of asylum seekers in Bulgaria) had their applications examined under accelerated procedures for "manifestly well-founded demands" and half of the total applying for protection in 2014 was granted asylum.