Bulgaria: Refugees illegally jailed and abused

July 26, 2015
Asylum seekers in Bulgaria.

There has been a huge rise in asylum seekers in Bulgaria as a direct result of instability in North Africa and the Middle East.

They use Bulgaria as a land entry into the European Union. The Bulgarian tabloid press has coined the phrase “wave”, which has now entered political and popular language.

In 2009, the newly-elected government greatly changed the way the law was interpreted and enforced. Before 2010, there was not a single “illegal immigrant” convicted and jailed in the criminal prisons.

Then, after the new government came to power, the police, investigators, prosecutors and judges started pushing as many asylum seekers and illegal immigrants into jails as possible. They did this by reinterpreting the law.

The constitution guarantees the right of entry into the country to seek asylum free from criminal liability. But the loophole is that the justice system is claiming that they are not entering Bulgaria to seek asylum, but to use Bulgaria as a transit to seek asylum in other European Union states.

They do not really get a chance to ask for asylum when they are arrested, which is part of the new manipulation of the system.

There are many cases where asylum seekers declare they are seeking asylum, but their claims are ignored. The police simply ignore them and they get tossed into the justice conveyor belt. Police arrest them and charge then with illegal border crossing.

As soon as they declare that they have entered Bulgaria to seek asylum, they should be immediately handed over to be processed by immigration authorities as asylum seekers, without criminal liability.

More often than not, there is not even access to a translator or lawyer. Asylum seekers can be held for months in inhumane and degrading “investigative detention facilities”. These have recently been a focus of criticism from both the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the European Court of Human Rights.

Those who are lucky enough not to be thrown into the justice system go directly to the immigration jails. These immigration detention facilities are used to hold illegal immigrants — asylum seekers who are waiting to be processed and foreigners waiting to be deported.

They are called “closed camps”, but they can only really be described as jails. Their conditions are even worse than criminal jails.

These immigration detention facilities are less regulated by law than criminal jails. It is extremely ironic, but in Bulgaria the rights given to all prisoners are only those legislated as the minimum requirements. The laws for the detention of foreigners, on the other hand, are almost non-existent.

Recently, a Syrian refugee was badly beaten in Busmansi immigration jail. His eardrum was ruptured and now requires a serious operation. The guards beat a group of them but only one was brave enough to come forward.

Detainees sleep on the floors. There are not enough benches for them to sleep on as that jail is an old school where they've turned the gym into cages. Winter temperatures can fall to -20ºC. The food is atrocious.

Bulgaria is trying as little as possible to grant full asylum. Instead, it is granting temporary asylum seeker documents. Some need to be renewed every few days, others every few months.

This also means asylum seekers cannot access the same measures available for those granted asylum. This means they cannot work or live stably.

Those who are not lucky and get charged with the crime of illegal border crossing usually get a suspended sentence of imprisonment for six months after they're convicted. Then they get sent to the immigration jails.

Then they are released temporarily and try to continue to Western Europe and get arrested again at the boarder trying to leave.

They get another six or eight months prison and the suspended sentence comes into force, so they get more than a year in the criminal jail.

Then, after their sentence is finished, they get sent back to immigration jail for re-processing by immigration.

There are more than 100 people convicted of illegal border crossing with me in my block now, in a criminal jail. Most of them were fitted up with a crime — almost all of them entered Bulgaria legally and legitimately requesting for asylum.

All were beaten by border police and investigative police.

Those who did have translators had translators who were worse than the police and who threatened them to sign confessions of guilt and to take plea bargains.

Mainstream Bulgarian politicians use refugee-bashing as an electoral issue, as they do in Australia. Recently Bulgaria started building a huge fence on the border with Turkey.

There have been criticisms of Hungary doing the same thing on their Serbian border, but there was almost no European criticism of the Bulgarian huge fence between Bulgaria and Turkey.

At the end of last year, three Nazi parties entered parliament. Two of them are part of the coalition government and the expansion of the fence has been a source of pride for them.

In 2012, these two parties also organised a type of militia where members and sympathisers wore Bulgarian flag armbands and beat and harassed foreigners on the streets.

This was done under the guise of checking identification documents. If the foreigner did not produce a valid ID, the idea was that the militia would hold them and call the immigration police to send them to immigration jail.

Of course, this militia had no legal right to do this.

There was a wave of Nazi race hate crimes and black people suffered the brunt of the xenophobia and racism, as they are the most obvious non-Bulgarians. Some black Bulgarians and also some Turkish-Bulgarians were hospitalised after Nazis mistook them for foreigners.

The most active refugee rights group is the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. After them, I cannot even think of a name, they are so far behind in terms of activity.

The Bulgarian Prisoners' Rehabilitation Association has been helping illegally jailed asylum seekers. We have only just started, but we are successfully obtaining legal representation for asylum seekers who are illegally jailed and getting them freed.

[Jock Palfreman is an Australian political prisoner in Sofia Central Jail and chairperson of the Bulgarian Prisoners' Rehabilitation Association. Visit www.freejock.com for more information.]

Syrian TV shows Bulgarian border police beating asylum seekers (footage is thought to be from last year):

Syrian tv shows Bulgarian border police beating asylum seekers, footage is thought to have been possibly from last year Most if not all asylum seekers to Bulgaria are victims of police brutality "Сирийска медиа: Български граничари бият бежанциГраничната полиция в България малтретира бежанци. Такава новина разпространи сирийска информационна агенция, цитирана от Би Ти Ви. Сайтът публикува видеозапис, на който се вижда как униформени удрят с палките си легнали на земята имигранти."Bulgarski http://m.dnevnik.bg/bulgaria/2015/07/07/2568071_siriiska_media_bulgarski_granichari_biiat_bejanci/Arabihttp://www.aksalser.com/news/2015/07/05/%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B7%D8%B9-%D9%85%D8%B5%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%B8%D9%87%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%88%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%84%D8%BA%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A-%D9%88-%D9%87/

Posted by Bulgarian Prisoners' Association on Tuesday, 7 July 2015

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