At the end of 2001, Bulgaria hosted about 2,900 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 385 persons granted asylum, 1,172 individuals issued residence permits on humanitarian grounds, and 1,349 asylum seekers with pending claims.
During the year, 2,428 asylum seekers applied for asylum in Bulgaria, up 38 percent from the 1,755 applicants in 2000. The largest numbers of asylum seekers came from Afghanistan (1,081), Iraq (720), and Armenia (160).
The Bulgarian Agency for Refugees (BAR), which is responsible for adjudicating asylum claims in the first instance, decided the cases of 2,190 applicants during 2001. Of these, 385 applicants received refugee status, an approval rate of 17.6 percent. Iraqis made up the largest group of successful asylum applicants (140), followed by Afghans (102). Additionally, 1,172 applicants received residence permits on humanitarian grounds for varying lengths of time, the majority from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The BAR denied 633 asylum claims and revoked the status of 36 persons during the year (4 with refugee status and 32 with humanitarian status).
Some 2,900 Bulgarians, most of whom were believed to be members of the Roma minority, sought asylum in other European countries during 2001.
Bulgaria acceded to the UN Refugee Convention in 1993. The country's 1991 Constitution includes a provision for granting asylum "to foreigners persecuted for their opinion and activity in defense of internationally recognized rights and freedoms."
Bulgaria's asylum procedure is governed by the Law on Refugees, which became effective in August 1999. Under the law, asylum seekers may apply at the border, in police stations, or at Bulgarian missions abroad. Asylum seekers in Bulgaria must apply within 72 hours of arrival, and the BAR should adjudicate asylum claims within three months. The agency may grant an asylum seeker Convention refugee status for up to three years, or humanitarian protection, valid for varying periods up to one year. Both statuses may be renewed.
Rejected asylum seekers may appeal negative decisions to the chairman of the BAR on administrative grounds, and to the Supreme Administrative Court on legal grounds. In the normal procedure, applicants have seven days to appeal negative decisions. Submitting an appeal suspends deportation proceedings.
The law also provides for 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 2000, Bulgaria adopted a list of 105 "safe" countries that included Yugoslavia, Indonesia, and India. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Bulgaria uses the list only as a reference tool, examining each application on a case-by-case basis.
Bulgaria's accelerated procedure has not been fully implemented, according to UNHCR, and less than ten cases were denied as "manifestly unfounded" in 2001.
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, a time period that nongovernmental organizations (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.
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.
The government does not provide asylum seekers with legal aid, and sometimes fails to inform claimants of the legal counsel available from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), financed by UNHCR.
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, the Bulgarian Red Cross, and other NGOs.
Bulgaria's 1999 asylum 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. Bulgarian authorities may also deny asylum to an alien who, "having had ample 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 Refugee Convention.
However, Bulgaria drafted amendments to the Law on Refugees during 2001 that are expected to bring the law further in line with European Union (EU) and international standards, by strengthening protections against refoulement (forced return), improving access to the asylum procedure for persons applying at the border, and removing exclusion and cessation clauses that exceed those contained in the Refugee Convention.
In the BHC's annual report, the rights group criticized the national border police as poorly trained in receiving asylum seekers, charging that refoulement is "a widespread practice" and that border police often do not follow regulations that require them to ascertain whether the country to which they are returning an asylum seeker "presents a risk to the person's life, liberty, and personal security."
Although Bulgaria is not part of the EU, since April, Bulgarians have been able to travel without visas to all Schengen member states (see box, p. 190 ). Consequently, in October, Bulgaria instituted visa requirements for citizens of Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.
Since 1993, Bulgaria has signed readmission agreements with Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, and is expected to ratify agreements with Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Ukraine in 2002.
Despite the adoption of the Framework Program for Equal Integration of Roma in Bulgarian Society in April 1999, the government has failed to enforce domestic legislation adequately to combat discrimination and protect minority rights. Roma faced discrimination in housing, social services, and health care, and continued to constitute a disproportionate number of the victims of police violence during 2001.
In a positive development, the National Police Service set up a human rights committee during 2001 with the goal of aligning Bulgarian police practices with international law and providing training. Local projects, some with funding from international donors, were begun to improve housing and employment opportunities for Roma.
Some 2,900 Bulgarians, most of whom were believed to be Roma, sought asylum in other European countries during 2001, up slightly from 2,690 in 2000.