The report was previously updated in October 2015.
- Single procedure: Several major changes were introduced into the national asylum system in the end of 2015 as a result of the still ongoing transposition of recast EU Directives, mainly with respect to the recast Asylum Procedures Directive and the recast Qualification Directive as well as the detention provisions of the recast Reception Conditions Directive.1 The most important change relates to the unification of asylum procedure stages in one, single regular procedure. Dublin and accelerated procedures are now considered as non-mandatory phases of the status determination, applied only by a decision of the respective case worker. The 2015 amendments took the admissibility criteria out of the accelerated procedure thus introducing the admissibility assessment as a separate procedure that could be applied.2
- Dublin returnees: Possibility to reopen the asylum procedure is being limited to just one reopening and within a time-limit of 6 months since the procedure has been discontinued. This time limit however is below the 9 months standard set in the recast Asylum Procedures Directive. Additionally, the national law now explicitly addresses the mandatory reopening of an asylum procedure with respect to an applicant who is returned to Bulgaria under the Dublin III Regulation. Prior the amendments of the law in end 2015 this approach as well as the right of the asylum applicant to have his application for international protection examined, or completed the examination, have not been not secured.3 The national decision maker, Sate Agency for Refugees (SAR) used to accept all take back requests from other Member States, but once the Dublin returnees are returned to Bulgaria - to refuse reopening of their discontinued asylum procedures by merely serving them the discontinuation decisions issued in absentia. The SAR practice following this particular amendments is not yet established as the number of the asylum seekers who are actually returned to Bulgaria under the Dublin Regulation remains relatively low.4
- Subsequent applications: The law now provides the opportunity given by the recast Asylum Procedures Directive to consider the subsequent applications as inadmissible based on a preliminary examination whether new elements or findings have arisen or been presented by the applicant relating to his personal situation or country of origin.5 The inadmissibility assessment can be conducted on the sole basis of written submissions without a personal interview. The national arrangement however do not envisage the related exceptions of this rule as provided in the recast Asylum Procedures Directive, as the right to remain is not guaranteed during even the first examination.
- Access to territory: Regarding asylum seekers’ access to territory and procedure the national situation remained unchanged. Even after opening of the so-called West Balkans Route in mid-2015 and in distinction with the authorities of the countries along the route, which facilitated arrivals’ transit and exit, the Bulgarian police continue to apprehend irregular arrivals, to fingerprint and detain them for deportation. Those who formally apply for asylum are released and transferred to reception centres. However, a survey conducted by BHC established that 99.8% of interviewed detention population stated that Bulgaria was not their destination.6 While the number of first arrivals and asylum applications in 2016 remained high, the percentage of already registered asylum seekers who abandoned their asylum procedures in Bulgaria rose immensely to reach 84% at the end of 2016 with 44% of asylum procedures being terminated (discontinued) and 41% suspended in absentia. Just 15% of asylum seekers remained in the country long enough to be delivered decisions on the substance.
- Accommodation: Until mid-2016 the national reception centres’ population gradually increased to reach from 12% of occupancy as of 31 January 2016 a 35% occupancy as of 31 July 2016. This situation remained until the beginning of August 2016 when the Serbian border authorities fully closed their border with Bulgaria as a reaction to the previous closure of their own exit borders by Hungary and Croatia. This resulted in a gradual increase of the reception centres population, reaching by the end of September 2016 an occupation to and beyond their maximum, with the occupancy rate going up to 110%. It resulted in overcrowded facilities and additional deterioration of already poor sanitary and living conditions in the majority of the centres (Voenna Rampa, Ovcha Kupel and Harmanli). Besides accommodation, nutrition and basic medical services, asylum seekers do not receive any other social support having the effective cancellation of monthly financial allowances from 1 February 2015 onwards.7
- Unaccompanied children: Safe and appropriate accommodation for unaccompanied asylum seeking children is not secured in practice. Although the law provides for availability of special conditions unaccompanied children are accommodated at reception centres mixed with other adult population and without guarantees for their safety.8 Since the 2015 amendments to the LAR, the statutory social workers are replaced by a legal representative for unaccompanied children appointed from the respective municipality and with explicitly enumerated responsibilities. However, in practice the municipalities proved even less equipped than statutory social workers to deal with unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children. Alongside municipalities’ constant lack of financial and administrative capacity to recruit and appoint additional staff this new national legal arrangement is generally recognised as a failure to provide the required representation of unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children. Only in December 2016 did the relevant municipalities appoint one guardian per reception centre.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Population: The closure of the Serbian border in mid-2016 and increase in occupancy of reception centres had a domino effect on the Ministry of Interior’s ability to release detainees on account of submitted asylum applications, which increased the detention duration from 3-6 days in mid-2016 to more than 9 days on average, and still growing as of the end of December 2016.
- Asylum detention: As of 1 January 2016, the law allows for detention of asylum seekers in accordance with the recast Reception Conditions Directive. At the end of August 2016 a mass fight between Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers in the biggest reception centre in Harmanli led to the opening of the first ever national closed reception centre. Following an ultimatum to the outgoing government to fully close Harmanli reception centre for exaggerated health concerns on 23 November 2016 without any information or early warning to the asylum seekers accommodated therein, the Harmanli centre was put in quarantine with the police blocking any exit of it. A riot on the next day was contained by the police with excessive use of force. In order to be able to detain nearly 400 Afghan asylum seekers, who were arrested after the riot, the SAR opened in heist yet another closed reception centre, although many asylum seekers were also detained in Busmantsi pre-removal detention centre in violation of domestic law.
Content of international protection
- Integration support: Following a third “zero integration” year since the end of 2013, in December 2016 the government finally introduced a long-expected Integration Decree,9 with respect to integration of recognised individuals. It envisage funding for municipalities to which the integration of refugees and subsidiary protection holders is entrusted. However, these legal provisions remain futile and out of use as none of 265 local municipalities nationwide has so far applied for such funding in order to commence the integration process with any of those granted in Bulgaria either of the two international protection types.
- 1. Law amending the Law on Asylum and Refugees, adopted on 2 October 2015, enforced on the date of the publication (State Gazette №80 of 16 October 2015), except for the provisions establishing closed asylum centres which entered into force on 1 January 2016, available in Bulgarian at: http://bit.ly/1Lfkedb; Law amending the Law on Asylum and Refugees, adopted on 11 December 2015 (State Gazette №101 from 22 December 2015), enforced on 25 December 2015, available in Bulgarian at: http://bit.ly/1j3XqXl.
- 2. Article 13(2) LAR.
- 3. Article 18(2) of Dublin III Regulation.
- 4. 624 incoming transfers in January-November 2016.
- 5. Article 75a to 76c LAR and Article 76d in conjunction with Article 13 (2), item 4 LAR.
- 6. BHC, Detention Mapping report Bulgaria, October 2016, available at: http://bit.ly/2jluOxS.
- 7. SAR, Order №31-310 of 31 March 2015.
- 8. Article 29(10) LAR.
- 9. Ordinance on rules and conditions to conclude, implement and cease integration agreements with foreigners granted asylum or international protection, COM №208 of 12 August 2016, State Gazette №65/19.08.2016, available in Bulgarian at: http://bit.ly/2jtVsTE.