UN rights chief sees ‘worrying signs’ in Bulgaria’s detention regime for migrants

Migrants and asylum-seekers, mostly Syrian Kurds, sit in the yard outside a schoolhouse-turned-reception centre, known as Vrazhdebna, on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. Photo: Jodi Hilton/IRIN

11 August 2016 – United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein today expressed serious concern that virtually all people entering Bulgaria in an “irregular manner” are subjected to detention, and that they could be prosecuted and even jailed if they try to leave, “placing many of them in an invidious Catch-22 situation.”

“This means that people who do not qualify under the strict definition of a refugee, but still have legitimate reasons for being unable to return to their home country, have hardly any avenues open to them,” said High Commissioner Zeid, in a news release issued by his Office (OHCHR).

“This is clearly inhumane and unacceptable,” he added.

The High Commissioner’s statement comes as OHCHR staff concluded the second of two visits to the country in the past eight months, revealing a number of disturbing policies and practices relating to migrants and refugees, as well as degrading conditions at some migrant detention facilities.

Mr. Zeid said he was particularly concerned about the reported disregard for due process and fair trial guarantees on a number of fronts in the Svilengrad Regional Court, where many of the criminal prosecutions for irregular border crossings take place.

“There are migrants who do not have access to adequate legal representation or translation services, to the extent that they are sometimes even unaware that they have been prosecuted – this is clearly contrary to fair trial and due process safeguards,” he noted.

Other concerns included ‘pushbacks’ into neighbouring countries, limited possibilities for people to integrate legally in Bulgaria, and persistent allegations of physical abuse and theft by law enforcement officials at border.

OHCHR added that attacks against migrants and refugees were rarely, if ever, punished, especially if committed by police, border guards or Government officials.

One such example is the recent halting by a Bulgarian court of all criminal proceedings related to the October 2015 killing of an unarmed Afghan man who was shot by border guards, said the UN human rights arm.

Rising xenophobia ‘most worrying’
“Rising xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism are among the most worrying threats to human rights in Europe today,” said the High Commissioner.

In particular, he expressed regret that Bulgarian public officials, including the Prime Minister, and elements of the media have made frequent aggressively anti-migrant statements.

“[It is] particularly disturbing to see important and influential public figures expressing support for illegal armed vigilante groups who have been brazenly hunting down migrants along parts of the border between Bulgaria and Turkey,” he said further, noting that the Bulgarian Government is not doing enough to challenge such alarming trends.

“Leadership is needed to create an environment conducive to respect for human rights, as well as to end violations and abuses when they occur,” he added.

Some positive developments
The press release also pointed out that the UN human rights team found some positive developments since their last visit in July.

One of these included the fixing of a six-day time limit for the registration of an asylum claim. This has occurred since the entry into force in December 2015 of legal provisions bringing Bulgaria’s law in line with the European Union’s Asylum Procedures Directive.

The UN human rights chief also said that his team had been impressed by the ‘many excellent, engaged and professional staff’ working in various Government institutions, including in Ministry of Interior detention facilities, as well as Sofia Central Prison.

Mr. Zeid also praised the fact that the country’s nascent guardianship system was recently extended to include migrant children. “[The system] was one of very few measures relating to migrants that related to their welfare and was not focused solely on security,” he noted.


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