ESCAPE TO BULGARIA?

text and photography by Nelly Tomova

Would-be refugees get a rough ride in a detention centre not far from Central Sofia

efugee center bulgaria.jpg

The fear of being caught and returned home. Nightmares of policemen, sirens and submachine guns. A constant feeling of being pursued, feeling unsafe. Cold sweat down your back when someone asks to see your documents. All of that might sound far-fetched, but not if you are considered an illegal immigrant in Bulgaria. When you are running away from your country there is always the fear that your escape might be foiled. 

More than 2,000 immigrants enter the territory of Bulgaria illegally each year and there is concern that this number might increase significantly if the country joins the Schengen Zone. Does Bulgaria have the capacity to manage such an increase and what can be done in order to maintain the security of the borders of the EU? How should illegal immigrants be treated and what are the integration policies if they are granted permission to stay in the country? All of these are questions which have recently been discussed by public officials and the media, but no one has come up with any answers yet.

In February 2011 the Hungarian border police stopped a truck. It had a secret compartment where more than 30 Afghans, many of them children, were hiding on their way to Western Europe. The group was sent back to Romania and then to Bulgaria, presumably their point of entry into the EU. The immigrants are now waiting for their fate to be decided in the Special Home for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners in Sofia, popularly referred to as the Busmantsi Jail.

The pale building of the institution is surrounded by massive walls, topped with barbed wire. This is the "home" for 131 men, women and children. You can see some of them playing football or just walking in the yard, while they wait to be returned to their home countries or to be granted refugee status and start their new lives in Bulgaria.

The Special Home for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners in Sofia's Busmantsi district, a part of the Interior Ministry Migration Department, is one of the places where non-EU citizens illegally staying in or passing through Bulgaria are being kept under lock and key. They include foreigners who have entered Bulgaria without valid documentation or who do not have a regular visa or permission to stay, or whose permissions has expired. The police can issue a deportation order, on the grounds of a breach of the Bulgarian Foreigners' Law, or one for expulsion, because of a perceived threat to national security or social order.

The centre is built to accommodate 400 people, but it has never reached that capacity. Most of those detained come from Afghanistan and Iraq, but there are also Syrians, Moroccans, Pakistanis and Nigerians. During their stay the immigrants are assigned a bed in a common dormitory and get free clothing and food three times a day. They get medical care and psychological support. They can spend their time playing sports in the playground, praying in the special premises dedicated to religion, watching television or talking in a canteen. All activities are scheduled and there is a timetable. At 10.30 the dormitories are locked and an hour later the lights get switched off.

"After all, people are kept here because they have broken the Bulgarian law. Their free movement rights might be temporarily restricted, but we haven't deprived them of anything else," says Ivan Bozhkov, the manager of the centre.

The centre in Busmantsi is designed to accommodate the immigrants before they are deported to their countries of origin. The maximum period of stay in the institution is six months, but this can be extended if there are bureaucratic complications.

Many of the migrants, however, apply for protection to the State Refugee Agency. Bulgaria offers several types of protection to non-EU citizens – asylum, refugee status, humanitarian status and temporary protection. Asylum, refugee status and humanitarian status are granted on the basis of an individual assessment of the immigrant's application. Temporary protection can be determined for groups in which every member is considered a refugee. It is applicable in cases of mass influx of displaced persons who cannot return to their country of origin because of an armed conflict, civil war, foreign aggression, human rights violations or large-scale violence on its the territory or in a separate region.

The Bulgarians laws are essentially similar if not identical to legislation in most Western countries that have had a tradition of immigration. The difference is in the way they are applied.

As far as refugee status is concerned, specific individual criteria must be met. Such status is granted by the chairman of the State Refugee Agency to an individual who has a reasonable fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion in his country of origin. Anyone who gets a refugee status is granted all the rights and obligations of a Bulgarian citizen, with several exceptions, such as voting rights. They cannot found political parties or take up positions which require Bulgarian citizenship, and they cannot join the army.

From January 1993 until May 2011, 19,389 foreigners applied for protection to the State Refugee Agency, most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan. 1,513 of them have been granted refugee status. Bulgaria, however, has been more of a transit country for refugees, since it joined the EU, and this is what concerns other member states. For many refugees, Bulgaria is seen as just a port-of-call on their way to Western Europe, where the economic situation and living standards are much better.

Those who decide to stay in Bulgaria can theoretically have a decent life as well. "Yes, it is true that even Bulgarians leave this country, but that does not make us unable to successfully integrate refugees. We have always had foreigners in this country, and things like xenophobia and racism are not wide-spread," Bozhkov claims, and adds: "The National Migration and Integration Strategy is well financed by the state and various EU financial instruments, and is already showing some positive results."

The successful integration of refugees in Bulgaria may be a hard task, especially as many Bulgarians themselves want to leave; but it is not unheard-of, according to the officials of the State Refugee Agency Integration Centre. Located in Sofia's Ovcha Kupel district, it is the place where immigrants who have applied for protection can start their new lives. While waiting for the decision of the agency, they receive accommodation here and take their first steps in getting to know Bulgaria. Bulgarian language classes and professional training in beauty therapy, hairdressing and sewing are provided, as well as various kinds of support for the immigrants and their children. In the beginning some have a hard time with the language and communication, but at least they are provided with some chance for a new start.

These may be small steps in a country that for many years has experienced emigration rather than immigration, but at least they are a kind of a beginning in an EU member state that may soon join Europe's free travel area known as Schengen.

Open Society Institute - SofiaThis periodical has been selected to be supported in media pluralism promotion contest, funded by the Open Society Institute - Sofia. The content of publications in it is responsibility of the authors and in no circumstances should be regarded as an official position of the Open Society Institute - Sofia.

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