U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Bulgaria
|Publisher||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants|
|Publication Date||1 June 2000|
|Cite as||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2000 - Bulgaria , 1 June 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8c710.html [accessed 23 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
At the end of 1999, Bulgaria hosted about 2,800 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 180 persons granted asylum, 380 individuals issued residence permits on humanitarian grounds, and about 2,200 asylum seekers with pending claims.
In 1999, 1,349 asylum seekers applied for asylum in Bulgaria, up 64 percent from the 824 applicants in 1998. The largest numbers of asylum seekers came from Yugoslavia (446), Afghanistan (277), Iraq (197), and Armenia (142).
During 1999, the Bulgarian Agency for Refugees (BAR), the agency responsible for adjudicating asylum claims in the first instance, decided the cases of 758 applicants. Of these, 180 individuals received refugee status, an approval rate of 24 percent. Another 380 applicants received residence permits on humanitarian grounds for varying lengths of time. The BAR denied the applications of 198 individuals during the year. In addition, BAR terminated the protection statuses of 250 persons (two holders of Convention refugee status and 248 with persons with residence permits on humanitarian grounds). In most cases, the authorities terminated the status of persons believed to have left Bulgaria.
Bulgaria acceded to the UN Refugee Convention in 1993. Article 27 (2) of Bulgaria's 1991 constitution states that "Bulgaria shall grant asylum to foreigners persecuted for their opinion and activity in defense of internationally recognized rights and freedoms," and Article 98 empowers the president to grant asylum.
After five years of deliberation and delay, the Bulgarian legislators passed a new law on refugees that became effective on August 1, 1999. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) played an active role in the law's creation although they did raise some concerns regarding the final version of the law (see below). In drafting the law, the Bulgarian government sought to meet European Union (EU) asylum standards and practices.
According to the new law, an asylum seeker may apply at the border, in police stations, or at Bulgarian missions abroad. Asylum seekers in Bulgaria must apply within 72 hours of arrival, rather than the previous requirement of 48 hours.
In 1999, the Bulgarian Agency for Refugees replaced the National Bureau on Territorial Asylum and Refugees (NBTAR) as the institution adjudicating asylum claims. Under the new law, the BAR has three months to issue a decision on an asylum application. The agency may grant an asylum seeker Convention refugee status for up to one year, or humanitarian protection, valid for varying periods up to one year. Both statuses may be renewed upon application.
The new law grants denied asylum seekers the right to appeal negative decisions to the Chairman of the Agency for Refugees on administrative grounds and to the Supreme Administrative Court on legal grounds. In the normal procedure, applicants have seven days to appeal negative decisions, a decrease from the 14 days granted under the previous asylum law. Submitting an appeal suspends deportation proceedings.
The new law applies an accelerated procedure for "manifestly unfounded" applicants, which refers to asylum seekers arriving from "safe" countries, or applicants who knowingly provide false information or documentation. In addition, several of the grounds for placing an applicant in the accelerated procedure overlap with the exclusion clauses denying refugee status. In the accelerated procedure, the border police determine admissibility to the normal procedure. Applicants rejected in the accelerated procedure have only 24 hours to appeal a negative decision, which NGOs consider insufficient. Decisions made in the accelerated procedure are subject only to administrative, not judicial review. The authorities do not process the applications of unaccompanied minors in the accelerated procedure.
Following Western European practice, the new legislation contains "safe third country" and "safe country of origin" concepts. A local NGO, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), expressed concern that although these principles do not necessarily contradict the 1951 Convention, they could pose a serious problem in Bulgaria, where mechanisms for preventing refoulement via expulsion or extradition remain imperfect. By year's end, the government had yet to establish safe country lists, but according to the BHC, Bulgaria did return potential asylum applicants to countries informally deemed safe.
UNHCR and BHC expressed concern over several aspects of the new law. The legislation includes extensive exclusion clauses under which asylum seekers may be denied refugee status: if they already hold residence permits (not protection statuses) in Bulgaria or another safe country; fail to apply within 72 hours of legal entry; or upon illegal entry, fail to submit a claim immediately.
According to the new law, the Bulgarian authorities may also deny asylum to an alien who, "having had ample time to and opportunity earlier to submit an application, submits an application to forestall an impending administrative measure such as withdrawal of right of temporary residence, expulsion or extradition." Bulgarian NGOs consider these provisions excessively strict and contrary to the UN Refugee Convention.
The BAR and UNHCR share the costs of housing refugees and asylum seekers. Upon arrival, asylum seekers may be accommodated in one of Bulgaria's two reception centers. After registering with the authorities, some asylum seekers move into private accommodations. While awaiting a decision, asylum seekers receive food, basic medical care, and a small financial allowance. UNHCR reported considerable improvement in the provision of interpreters to asylum seekers in 1999.
The government does not provide asylum seekers with any legal aid, and reportedly often fails to inform asylum seekers of the legal counsel available from UNHCR and local NGOs. During 1999, access to legal counsel improved somewhat as BHC lawyers gained access to the airport transit zone and to the Drujba Detention Center. Assisting asylum seekers at the border remained problematic, however.
Recognized refugees receive renewable residence permits, social assistance on the same terms as Bulgarian nationals, travel documents, and the right to work. Refugees may apply for family reunification and three years after recognition may apply for Bulgarian citizenship. The BAR provides integration assistance such as language courses and employment training for recognized refugees through programs implemented by UNHCR and the Bulgarian Red Cross. In conjunction with UNHCR and local NGOs, the BAR drafted an integration program for refugees during the year.
Despite recent improvements, the refugee status determination procedure reportedly remains slow, with some applicants waiting years for a decision.
Detention and Deportation
During 1999, domestic and international humanitarian organizations continued to criticize Bulgarian detention methods (particularly at the borders), the denial of entry and access to the asylum procedure at borders, and the summary deportation of potential claimants to third countries. However, the BHC noted a significant reduction in the detention of asylum seekers within the country because of increased monitoring activity by NGOs.
During 1999, Bulgaria apprehended 27,773 unauthorized foreigners at its borders. Although not part of the European Union (EU), Bulgaria announced plans to comply with Schengen border requirements by 2002 (see box, p. 207) As part of the agreement, Bulgaria agreed to remove wire fencing along its border and to replace soldiers with border patrol agents.
In February, Bulgaria imposed entry visa requirements on 17 countries to bring Bulgarian policy in line with the EU. These included, among others, Armenia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgzstan, and Turkmenistan.
Kosovo Crisis During 1999, 478 Kosovo Albanians received protection on humanitarian grounds in Bulgaria. These individuals received funding from the BAR to cover accommodation costs in private homes.
Despite public support for the NATO bombing campaign, the Bulgarian government closed its borders to Yugoslav citizens, including Kosovo Albanians, in April 1999. Although the international and NGO communities criticized Bulgaria's action, the Bulgarian authorities decided to admit only Yugoslav citizens of Bulgarian nationality and openly stated that other refugees from Kosovo were unwelcome.