Another Migrant Mistreatments were Revealed on the Balkan Route

Lesovo-Hamzabeyli Border Checkpoint between Bulgaria and Turkey

Internal Frontex documents show that Bulgarian border guards routinely mistreat migrants and pushbacks are part of the day-to day operations. The European Commission praised Sofia’s “excellent results” despite repeated warnings as it prepares to enter the Schengen area.

As per reporting by French news outlet Le Monde, in 2022, a 16-year-old asylum seeker entered an open reception center in Sofia to submit his application. He intended to apply for family reunification with his mother and the five other siblings he had left behind in Syria and Lebanon, as well as protection. However, instead of having his claim processed in the reception area, he was brought to a location that “had the appearance of a prison.” They were driven back more than 300 kilometers to the border between Bulgaria and Turkey during the night, along with about fifty other individuals, without being registered or informed of their right to apply for asylum. Bulgaria has the longest 259-kilometer barbed wire fence in the EU, which runs along its border with neighboring Turkey.

Numerous Abuses Against Migrants

“They made us walk to the fence that had cameras on it. After we passed the fence, there was something like a canal. At the same time, they were hitting the people,” the boy recalled. “They took everything and hit me on the back, on the head. After that, they threw me in the canal. The group was instructed to return to Turkey and not to return.

A trove of internal Frontex documents obtained by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), the EU border agency’s internal human rights watchdog has received numerous reports of abuses over the previous 18 months.

These documents, which were obtained through requests for access to public records, describe alleged abuses carried out by Bulgarian officers involved in Frontex operations.

These abuses include beatings with sticks, forcing people to strip naked, stealing personal belongings, verbal abuse, and severe injuries caused by service dogs that were let loose.

Pushbacks as a Normal Procedure

According to Bulgaria’s Interior Minister, Ivan Demerdzihiev just between January and October 2023 165 000 illegal entry attempts were prevented. The interior ministry, however, said there are only “isolated cases” of pushbacks, they maintain that “checks have been carried out of formal pushback signals made by foreigners who tried to illegally cross the state border of Bulgaria. The checks ended with the finding that there was no evidence of physical violence.”

Iliana Savova from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee refutes the interior minister words, stating “in this case people have been intercepted inside the country. So it is not a prevented entry, but about return, an informal one – in other words: pushbacks.”

Pushbacks happen when a country uses measures to force refugees and migrants out of their territory while obstructing access to legal counsel and other support. They are prohibited under European Union (EU) and international law, violating the 1951 Refugee Convention principle of non-refoulement, which provides that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.

In 2022 estimated 5 270 pushbacks affecting 87 650 people occurred at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, according to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. Actual numbers, however, are believed to be much higher.

The Bulgarian-Turkish border has seen a growing number of pushbacks and violence against migrants in the last year, prompting human rights workers to demand accountability. But with a culture of impunity within Bulgaria’s police force and the country’s ambitions to join Schengen – combined with the European Union’s goals of curbing irregular migration – justice anytime soon seems unlikely.

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