Bulgaria's forgotten foreigners languish in limbo. And the state seems indifferent
Issue 12, September
by Gabriel Hershman; photography by Dragomir Ushev
Imagine you have committed no crime yet you are imprisoned for weeks, months, even years – without a release date. There's no point tearing days off a calendar. If you protest you could be placed in isolation for an unspecified period.
You may think we are referring to imprisoned dissidents under Communism or conditions in a Third World banana republic. Actually, you are just eight kilometres outside of Sofia and it's the present day. Welcome to Busmantsi – a Special Centre for the Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners. Despite its non-threatening title, this establishment, which falls under the control of the Interior Ministry's Migration Directorate, is no hotel. Phone calls are permitted but police guards monitor all other activities and “guests”, housed in barrack-like dormitories, have no freedom of movement.
Busmantsi's grim façade, towering walls, barbed wire and Fort Knox security may lead you to conclude that it houses some of Bulgaria's most dangerous offenders. Yet we interviewed a mild-mannered lady of 70 who's been at Busmantsi for a year. Raisa Petrovna Todorova told me she was from Turkmenistan. She entered Bulgaria to fulfil a promise to her late (Bulgarian) husband to visit the country. She was robbed of all her possessions and ID papers on a train. The authorities, unable to establish her identity, put her in Busmantsi. Raisa has no money, no lawyer and no idea about her release date. Her nearest consulate – in Istanbul – seems uninterested in her case. When I met her she appeared disorientated, wanting me to tell her when she would be freed. If only I knew.
Busmantsi, as of the end of the summer, was currently “home” to 115 people (but this number varies considerably), mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq. The centre, with a maximum capacity of 600 people, opened last June. Two similar “facilities” will start operating soon. Most inmates are “illegal aliens” or rejected asylum seekers, awaiting deportation to their countries of origin. The state has authorised their expulsion without enforcing the order. A smaller number are asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be heard by Bulgaria's State Agency for Refugees. (Following the recent construction of Busmantsi, all undocumented asylum seekers caught at the border are sent there).
Three of the inmates are aliens who have been granted refugee status, yet deemed state security risks. However, there are no indicted criminals at Busmantsi. Their only “offence” is that they lack documents entitling them to stay legally in Bulgaria. More than 36 people have now been detained for longer than 18 months Some have been held, pending deportation, for years. One Cuban man has been held (in different units) since April 2004.
The outside world doesn't seem concerned. So it comes as a relief to know that some prying eyes are probing behind closed doors – in particular, lawyers from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), a refugees' and migrants' legal protection organisation. BHC lawyer Iliana Savova visits Busmantsi every week. She says the centre violates Article Five of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), whose unwritten practice dictates that no person should spend more than six months in custody pending deportation or expulsion orders. The BHC appeals against protracted detentions, trying to keep within the ECHR's guidelines. To outsiders it seems a modest aim. “When our European colleagues hear this, they are surprised that we're campaigning for the implementation of six months' detention,” says Iliana. In the UK, for example, it's much shorter.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers