UNHCR CDR Background Paper on Refugees and Asylum Seekers from Bulgaria


Bulgaria has been an important source country of refugees and asylum seekers in the past few years. This paper seeks to define the scope, destination, and causes of their movement.

In the first part, the paper provides a statistical overview of Bulgarian refugees and asylum seekers in Western European States, describing current trends in the number and origin of asylum requests as well as the results of their status determination. The data are derived from government statistics made available to UNHCR and compiled by its Food and Statistical Unit.

The second part of the paper contains information regarding the conditions in the country of origin, which are often invoked by asylum seekers when submitting their claims for refugee status. The Country Information Unit of the UNHCR's Centre for Documentation and Research (CDR) conducts its research on the basis of publicly available information, analysis and comment, with all sources cited and available in full.

1.   Asylum Seekers in Europe

This Section seeks to provide a statistical analysis of Bulgarian refugees and asylum seekers in Europe. National asylum seeker and asylum adjudication statistics pose a number of problems.

Firstly, there are no common standards for the recording, compilation and dissemination of such statistics. As a result, their frequency, coverage and format differ significantly between countries. For example, a number of countries, including Denmark and France, incorporate resettlement arrivals into the asylum statistics, which influences both the number of asylum applications and the percentage of positive decisions. Secondly, it is often not clear who is counted and who is not. The statistics may refer to adults, principal applicants ("cases"), or all persons.

In some countries, asylum seekers are not admitted to the normal eligibility procedures because they come from, or have transited through, a country which is considered "safe". Others are denied entry at the border as undocumented migrants or are denied from travelling to the country as a result of pre-boarding checks arising from carrier sanctions. It is in most cases unclear whether asylum seekers who are denied access to status determination procedures on these and other grounds are included in the asylum statistics.

As the pace of country statistical reporting varies, the 1994 data have been made comparable with 1993 data by using average monthly figures. That is, the total cumulative number of asylum seekers since 1 January 1994 has been divided by the number of months for which the data were reported. Through extrapolation, an estimate for the year 1994 was obtained. However, as the 1994 statistics from a few countries had not been received at the time this report was prepared, the observations made for 1994 are provisional.

With regard to refugee status determination statistics, comparing national data becomes an even more daunting task. As refugee status determination procedures are based on national law and practice, the scope for comparison of these statistics is limited. For instance, whereas in Sweden asylum applications from citizens of the former Yugoslavia are individually screened, some other European countries grant these persons temporary protection on a group basis. As a result, ex-Yugoslavs, one of the largest groups of asylum seekers in the last few years, are included in the Swedish asylum and adjudication statistics, but mostly excluded from the statistics of other countries.

Recognition rates have, therefore, been calculated by dividing the number of Convention status recognitions ("Accepted") by the total number of Convention status recognitions and negative decisions ("Rejections"). Humanitarian and comparable statuses have been grouped together under one heading ("Allowed to stay").

1.1   Overall Trends in Asylum Applications

During the period 1987-1993, the total number of asylum seekers in Europe increased from 179,000 to 549,000. A peak was reached in 1992 when 684,000 persons applied for asylum. In 1994 to date, the number of asylum seekers has been some 40 per cent smaller than in 1993: the average monthly number of asylum seekers currently stands at some 26,300, down from 45,700 in 1993. If the current trend continues until the end of year, the number of asylum seekers may reach 316,000 persons in 1994.

As in previous years, Germany has received the largest number of asylum seekers in 1994. However, the country's share in the total number of asylum seekers has fallen sharply since 1992, when it received 64 per cent of all asylum seekers in Europe (438,000 out of a total of 684,000). Germany's current share, at 41 per cent, is close to that of the 1988-1991 period and significantly lower than in 1993 (59 per cent).

The Netherlands continues to receive the second largest number of asylum seekers in Europe in 1994. Some 17 per cent of all persons seeking asylum in Europe during this year have been hosted by the Netherlands (4,400 out of a total monthly average of 26,300), three times as much as in 1993 (six per cent).

The United Kingdom, France and Sweden have, to date, received between seven and nine per cent of the average monthly number of asylum seekers in 1994. It should be borne in mind, however, that the figures for the United Kingdom are based on the number of cases: the number of persons is about 1.5 times higher.

Major changes in the number of asylum applications submitted in 1994, compared to 1993, can be summarized as follows:

·         Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden have experienced a decline in the number of persons seeking asylum to date (minus 42 per cent), although that number is greater than average;

·         Austria, France and Spain have also experienced a decline in the number of asylum seekers, but less than the average; and

·         Italy, and particularly the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have experienced an increase in the average monthly number of asylum seekers.

1.2   Refugees under the 1951 Convention

During the 1989-1993 period, some 171,000 asylum seekers were recognized as refugees under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The annual number of Convention recognitions increased from 27,500 in 1989-1990 to 47,000 in 1993. France granted refugee status to the largest number of persons (some 59,000 or 35 per cent of all refugee recognitions in Europe), followed by Germany (50,000 or 29 per cent) and the Netherlands (18,000 or 10 per cent). Other European countries granted Convention status to less than 10,000 refugees each.

During the same period, some 1.4 million asylum applications were rejected in Europe. Of these, some 59 per cent were rejected by Germany, 15 per cent by France, seven per cent by Switzerland and five per cent by Austria and the Netherlands.

Convention refugee status was granted to 11 per cent of all asylum-seekers whose applications were adjudicated in Europe during the 1989-1993 period. While the overall recognition rate of asylum applications was around 15 per cent in 1989, it fell to 10 per cent in 1990-1993.

There were significant differences in recognition rates between asylum countries. These differences should be interpreted with care, as was noted earlier. Recognition rates during the 1989-1993 period were higher than average in Belgium (32 per cent), Sweden (29 per cent), France (22 per cent), the Netherlands (20 per cent), Portugal and the United Kingdom (16 per cent) and Norway (12 per cent). They were lower than average in Italy (eight per cent), Switzerland (seven per cent), Germany and Greece (six per cent), Spain (two per cent) and Finland (one per cent). In Austria, the proportion of positive decisions was around the European average, while the number of negative decisions is not available for Denmark.

Some 183,000 persons were allowed to stay in Europe for humanitarian or similar reasons during the 1989-1993 period. The largest number was admitted by Sweden (82,000 persons or 45 per cent of all persons allowed to stay for these reasons in Europe), followed by the United Kingdom (35,000 or 19 per cent), Switzerland (25,000 or 14 per cent), the Netherlands (15,000 or eight per cent), Norway (six per cent) and Denmark (five per cent).

1.3   Trends in Bulgarian Asylum Applications and Adjudication

·         During the 1989-1993 period, some 96,000 Bulgarians applied for asylum in Western Europe, constituting some four per cent of all asylum seekers in the area. The annual number of Bulgarian asylum applications increased from 7,000 in 1989 to 34,000 in 1992, after which it fell to some 25,000 in 1993.

·         Bulgarian asylum seekers are highly concentrated in Germany: 78 per cent of all Bulgarian claims during the 1989-1993 period were submitted in Germany, followed by Sweden (six per cent). In 1992 and 1993, 90 per cent or more of all Bulgarian asylum applications submitted in Europe were submitted in Germany.

·         During the 1989-1993 period, some 700 Bulgarian asylum seekers were admitted as Convention refugees, mostly by France (320 persons or 40 per cent), Austria (26 per cent) and Germany (19 per cent).

·         Recognition rates of Bulgarian asylum applications (the number granted Convention refugee status divided by the total number of decisions taken in a year) have dropped significantly: 27 per cent in 1989, 14 in 1990, four in 1991, one in 1992 and zero in 1993.

2.   Internal Situation in Bulgaria

2.1   Recent Political Developments

New parliamentary elections are scheduled for 18 December 1994, the third such elections since November 1989, when Todor Zhivkov, General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party and President of the Council of State, was forced to resign (Reuters, 17 October 1994; Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, 1994). The most recent Prime Minister, Lyuben Berov, dissolved his "centrist" cabinet 2 September 1994 after criticism against his government for the lack of progress in market reform, a failure to deal with crime, and rising inflation (Reuters, 28 September 1994). In the interim, President Zhelyu Zhelev has appointed a caretaker government under Bulgaria's first female Prime Minister, Renata Indzhova (Reuters, 17 October 1994). While the constitution stipulates that the President request the leading parties in parliament to form a new government when necessary, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which hold 110 and 106 parliamentary seats respectively, refused to do so. The electorate will thus be called on to decide the balance of power in parliament.

The Berov government was originally hailed as a milestone in Bulgaria's history, in light of its formation through an alliance between the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a predominantly ethnic Turkish political organization with 24 seats in parliament, and the BSP. Reflecting on the success of the coalition, the U.S.-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights characterized as significant "the fact that the linchpin of government is now the political party which represents the ethnic Turkish minority, in a country whose single largest human rights issue has been the treatment of that minority" (Critique: Review of the U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1992, July 1993, p. 49).

The marriage between the two parties has grown increasingly fragile, however, in part because of "the BSP's tendency to champion the 'Bulgarian' against the 'Turkish' cause" (Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, 1994, p. 204). Moreover, the MRF is not expected to perform well in the upcoming election. The party has had to contend with an erosion in its ethnic Turkish base of support with the appearance of a splinter Turkish group, the Party for Democratic Change (RFE/RL Research Report, 24 June 1994, p. 25).

The BSP, on the other hand, is well-positioned, with over 300,000 members and ranking well in the opinion polls (Reuters, 29 September 1994). The anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) is viewed as running a close second, but will likely bolster its position by forming coalitions with smaller parties like the Confederation for the Kingdom of Bulgaria (Eastern Europe Newsletter, 16 November 1994; 2 November 1994). To be represented in the National Assembly, a party must, however, secure 4% of the national vote (Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, 1994, p. 204). If the BSP wins, it will be the second time that the successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party has dominated the government since Todor Zhivkov's ouster. This in spite of allegations by the UDF of "recommunization", and the various campaigns to convict former communists of past offenses and to ensure the removal of communists from positions in government, academic centres, and scientific institutions (RFE/RL Research Report, 21 May 1993).

2.2   Bulgarian Nationalism

While the three main parties, the BSP, UDF, and MRF, are better organized and funded than smaller parties, voter dissatisfaction with the economy and rising crime may fuel increasing support for fringe parties, feeding speculation that the political landscape of Bulgaria will change dramatically (RFE/RL Research Report, 24 June 1994, p. 25). Of particular concern to observers is the manipulation of "nationalism as a useful tool to maximize public support" (RFE/RL Research Report, 22 April 1994, p. 79). For its part, the BSP has an electoral alliance with a nationalist group, the Fatherland Labour Party, and has endeavoured to secure nationalist backing (Ibid., p. 79; Eastern Europe Newsletter, 8 October 1991). The BSP has also attempted to invoke a constitutional clause which prohibits the formation of political parties along ethnic lines in order to disband the MRF. Thus, while none of the leading parties openly promotes the kind of violence that is so prevalent in the region, there is a fear that "[i]n the worst-case scenario, irresponsible Bulgarian politicians could at some point try to make short-term gains by pushing the country down the slippery slope toward ethnic confrontation" (RFE/RL Research Report, 19 March 1993, p. 41).

Assimilation Campaigns

During the Communist era under Todor Zhivkov, several overt attempts to assimilate minorities served not only to engender nationalist feelings among ethnic Bulgarians but also greater ethnic and religious identity among the targeted populations. In the early 1970s, Bulgarian Muslims, also known as "Pomaks", were obliged to change their names to traditional Bulgarian ones; if they refused, they were denied identity papers which enabled them to draw money, pensions, and state salaries from bank accounts (World Directory of Minorities, 1992, p. 118). Resistance and protest often resulted in violence and imprisonment (Poulton, H., 1991, pp. 111-115).

A similar name-changing campaign was instituted against the ethnic Turkish community in December 1984. At the time, the "Bulgarian authorities stated that the ethnic Turks were in fact descendants of Slav[ic] Bulgarians who had been forcibly converted to Islam under Ottoman rule (ie. that they were Pomaks)" (Poulton, H., 1991, p. 130). Assimilation efforts also took the form of curtailing religious activities, imposing fines on the use of Turkish in public places, and limiting work opportunities for Turks who did not change their names. Dissenters were routinely arrested, and beatings in detention and internal exile were not uncommon punishments (Ibid., pp. 139-147; see also U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1985, 1986). The then Minister of the Interior revealed in February 1992 that a total of 820,000 Pomak and Turkish names had been changed during the period 1984-1989 (Keesing's Record of World Events, 1992, p. 38776).

Country-wide demonstrations against these campaigns reached new heights in May 1989, as a result of which authorities expelled prominent ethnic Turkish activists from the country. These initial expulsions quickly evolved into a mass exodus of the Turkish population, as the authorities allowed others critical of the official assimilation policy to depart as well by liberalizing passport regulations and eliminating exit visa requirements; by August 1989, over 300,000 persons had emigrated to Turkey (Poulton, H., 1991, p. 157; SOPEMI, 1993, p. 113). Some observers have suggested that by encouraging emigration, "the Communist Party was trying to play the 'national card', using nationalism to strengthen its vulnerable position" (SOPEMI, 1993, p. 113; see also RFE/RL Research Report, 5 January 1990, p. 10). Others cite "ethnic purification" as the government's primary motive (RFE/RL Research Report, 13 December 1991, p. 6).


During 1990, some 150,000 ethnic Turks who had left during the previous year's exodus returned to Bulgaria (Vasileva, D., 1992, p. 349). Subsequent to the events of 1989, the National Assembly instituted a number of reforms that improved the rights and freedoms of minorities (Eastern Europe and Commonwealth of Independent States, 1994, p. 198). For example, in March 1990 the National Assembly adopted a bill that provided for the restoration of Turkish and Pomak names. By March 1991 some 600,000 non-ethnic Bulgarians had recuperated their original names (Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990, p. 37328; Encyclopedia of Conflicts, Disputes and Flashpoints in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Successor States, 1993, p. 52).

However, the returnees were confronted with a host of difficulties; many had no housing because they had sold or rented their residences prior to departure. In some districts houses of returnees had actually been destroyed (Poulton, H., 1991, p. 159). Reportedly, some 77,000 Turks were considered homeless in 1990, representing half the population that returned from Turkey (Vasileva, D., 1992, p. 350). Property issues were eventually addressed by the National Assembly as part of an indemnity package, resulting in the return of some 3,000 houses to their previous owners (Encyclopedia of Conflicts, 1993, p. 52).

Many ethnic Bulgarians reacted negatively to the reforms. In early 1990 a series of backlash demonstrations took place as an expression of opposition to the government's new policy towards minorities and a reaffirmation of Bulgarian nationalism (Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990, p. 37193). Reasons for the unrest were attributed to several sources: fear of an Islamic resurgence in those parts of Bulgaria where ethnic Bulgarians are in the minority, concern that Turkey might gain more influence over Bulgaria's political arena, and fear that those who had profited from the Turkish exodus by purchasing houses, goods, livestock at superficially low prices might be "stripped of their gains" (RFE/RL Research Report, 9 February 1990, p. 8; Poulton, H., 1991, p. 164).

Ongoing government reforms relating to minority access to the media and education continued to be met with resistance. A February 1991 proposal by the Ministry of Education to introduce Turkish language courses in selected schools generated protests, particularly in those areas that had mounted the strongest nationalist opposition to the 1990 reforms. The BSP-dominated parliament subsequently legislated against the teaching of Turkish in October 1991. However, a new minister of education at the time effectively defied the law, and allowed Turkish to be taught on an optional basis (RFE/RL Research Report, 13 December 1991, p. 6; RFE/RL Research Report, 3 January 1992, p. 80).

During 1994, radical nationalist groups still espoused the assimilation of minorities, particularly ethnic Turks and the Roma (Gypsies). The most vocal are the Bulgarian National Radical Party (BNRP), which claims a membership of 34,000; the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), close to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDP in Russia; the Committee for the Defense of National Interests (CDNI), which remains convinced that the "Turkish community...was originally ethnically Bulgarian and had been forcibly 'Turkified' during Ottoman rule"; and the Fatherland Labour Party (FLP), the parliamentary wing of the aforementioned CDNI (RFE/RL Research Report, 22 April 1994, p. 78; Eastern Europe Newsletter, 8 October 1991).

3.   The National and International Legal Framework

Bulgaria is a signatory to a variety of major instruments including, but not limited to, the 1951 Convention/1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, Protocols I & II of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocol, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the European Convention on Human Rights and its associated Protocols 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8; Bulgaria has signed but not ratified Protocols 4 and 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Bulgaria's Grand National Assembly promulgated a new constitution on 12 July 1991, after lengthy deliberations that have been described as "often tumultuous and at times acrimonious" (RFE/RL Research Report, 3 January 1992, p. 78). Much of the debate centered on the fact that the parliament at the time was dominated by the BSP, and that consequently, the final document "would favor BSP interests and provide protection for BSP members and the party itself..." (Ibid.). Moreover, a series of demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, hunger strikes and boycotts focused attention on the issue of teaching Turkish in schools. When a proposition was brought forward in March 1991 to constitutionally designate Bulgarian the sole official language, MRF deputies left in protest. What emerged in spite of the controversy is a constitution acknowledged as providing for the basic rights and freedoms of Bulgarian citizens (e.g., Critique 1992, 1993). Article 4(2) of the constitution states that "The Republic of Bulgaria shall guarantee the life, dignity and rights of the individual and shall create conditions conducive to the free development of the individual and the civil society" (Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria, 1991).

At the same time, criticism has been levelled at the omission of any explicit reference to "minorities"; all references are to "Bulgarian citizens". Other clauses cited as problematic include Article 11(4), which expressly prohibits the formation of "political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines...", Article 13(4), which states that "[r]eligious institutions and communities, and religious beliefs shall not be used to political ends", and Article 12(2), which forbids "[c]itizens' associations, including... trade unions, [from] pursu[ing] any political objectives [or] engag[ing] in any political activity which is in the domain of the political parties" (Constitution, 1991). These articles make it particularly difficult for e.g. the Roma or Macedonians to participate in the political process. In addition, they open the door for broad interpretations of "political activities" to be used to curtail the activities of trade unions or religious groups. Finally, they render it possible to challenge the legality of the MRF, whose membership, while not limited to ethnic Turks, is represented largely by them; the BSP has already made several such attempts (Country Reports 1993, 1994; Critique 1991, 1992; Encyclopedia of Conflicts, 1993, p. 52; RFE/RL Research Report, 3 January 1992, p. 80).

Human rights advocates contend that the effective ban on ethnically-based parties is in contravention of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European Convention, ratified respectively by Bulgaria in 1970 and 1992. Moreover, because Bulgaria's own constitution stipulates in Article 5(4) that "[a]ny international instruments which have been ratified by the constitutionally established procedure, promulgated and come into force with respect to the Republic of Bulgaria, shall be considered part of the domestic legislation of the country", an argument can be made that the ban violates Bulgarian law as well (Encyclopedia of Conflicts, 1993, p. 52).

4. General Respect for Human Rights

Human rights reports attest to the improvements made in Bulgaria's human rights record since Todor Zhivkov's rule. However, they caution that certain minority issues remain unresolved, leaving ethnic and religious groups vulnerable, particularly in the present period of economic decline and regional insecurity. For example, the U.S. Department of State notes in its annual report for 1993 that "[a]lthough the Government made some efforts to address the specific difficulties of minority groups and to investigate alleged human rights violations, xenophobia, nationalism, and antiethnic expression increased noticeably among the population at large" (Country Reports 1993, 1994). The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights assesses the situation thus:

Tough times are ahead. Competition for scarce jobs in an unstable economy will increase, along with an influx of refugees and immigrants. Shortages of fuel will continue, at least for the near term. If this results in continued discrimination and substandard living conditions for its minorities, the pot could well boil over into the ethnic strife and violence that has become so characteristic of the region (Critique 1992, 1993).

4.1   Freedom of Movement

One of the more significant changes that occurred in conjunction with Todor Zhivkov's departure was the liberalization of laws regulating exit and return. Historically, the advent of Communist rule in Bulgaria had put an end to all migratory movements, voluntary or otherwise: "[a]lmost all emigrants were considered political traitors" (SOPEMI, 1993, p. 112). Illegal departure and failure to return after legally departing were considered crimes for which one could be sentenced in absentia. Moreover, "[s]ome of those who had become politically active abroad were sentenced [in absentia] for having 'placed themselves at the service of a foreign power'. The sentences usually consisted of prison terms and/or the confiscation of property" (RFE/RL Research Report, 2 July 1993, p. 50).

A loosening in travel laws began in May 1989, when the National Assembly approved a law permitting Bulgarian citizens to apply for five-year passports enabling them to travel abroad. Although the law did not come into effect until 1 September of that year, the Zhivkov government nevertheless "selectively applied" it to the Turkish minority, provoking, as pointed out, the departure of over 300,000 ethnic Turks (Country Reports 1989, 1990; RFE/RL Research Report, 5 January 1990, p. 10). Changes to the Bulgarian Criminal Code during the same period included the decriminalization of overstaying one's visa and of non-return after legally departing from the country, even if an application for asylum had been made while abroad (Immigration and Refugee Board, Ottawa, 20 June 1990); instead of criminal penalties, Bulgarians were subject to "administrative measures and fines ($210 for overstaying one month and upwards). Those who overstayed abroad prior to September 1, 1989, were not subject to the fines or criminal penalties" (Country Reports 1989, 1990).

An amnesty and restitution for Bulgarians convicted for illegal departure occurred in December 1990, with the passage of the Law on Amnesty and the Return of Confiscated Property. This new law, however, did not provide for the return of confiscated property to those who had overstayed their visas: "As a consequence, many exiles today are still encountering difficulties in regaining property to which they would otherwise have been entitled under the so-called restitution laws" (RFE/RL Research Report, 2 July 1993, p. 53).

According to Article 35(1) of the constitution, Bulgarians today are "free to choose a place of residence and shall have the right to freedom of movement on the territory and to leave the country"; moreover, "[e]very Bulgarian citizen shall have the right to return to the country" (Constitution, 12 July 1991).

4.2   Minority Groups at Risk

Minorities in Bulgaria constitute approximately 16% of the population, which according to the census totalled 8,472,724 in December 1992. Figures for the four largest groups provided by the 1992 census are as follows: 822,253 ethnic Turks; 275,000 Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks); 287,700 Roma (some sources cite much higher figures of between 500,000 and 600,000); and 6,000 Macedonians (again, other sources suggest 100,000 as a more accurate figure). Minorities that make up less than 0.1% of the population, yet which reveal the diversity of Bulgaria's inhabitants, include Alevites, Armenians, Albanians, Circassians, Czechs, Gagauz, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Karakachans, Romanians, Russians, Serbs, Tatars, and Vlachs (Troebst, S., 1994).

Troebst cautions that "[t]here is...no reliable source for all these figures. Former censuses either omitted ethnicity, whereas the results of the most recent census of December 1992 have not yet been completely made public" (1994, p. 32). Moreover, figures reported in the 1992 census are considered problematic for a number of reasons. Minorities in some areas claimed they were pressured to record themselves as ethnic Turks, while other minorities identified themselves as ethnic Bulgarians to avoid discrimination. For some groups (eg. the Vlachs), no option for identifying their ethnicity was included in the questionnaire (RFE/RL Research Report, 5 February 1993).

Ethnic Turks

Following a succession of assimilation campaigns, the ethnic Turkish minority has over the years made significant strides in the area of cultural expression and identity. Many of the attempts to suppress their religious practices and language during the communist era have been rectified (Country Reports 1993, 1994). The Turkish community has also realized gains in the political arena with the ascendancy of the MRF in the National Assembly.

However, as an RFE/RL Research Report points out, "[a]t least for the past century and a half, Bulgarian nationalism can virtually be equated with anti-Turkish sentiment" (22 April 1994, p. 77). Stereotypes continue to be perpetuated through "literature, schoolbooks, works of art, folklore, and elsewhere. The Turks have typically been portrayed as devious, duplicitous, and rapacious--the traditional enemy" (RFE/RL Research Report, 19 March 1993, p. 37). Such sentiments become manifested in opposition to ethnic Turkish empowerment and participation in administrative structures by the Bulgarian population at-large, particularly in mixed areas (Troebst, S., 1994, p. 35). Moreover, certain issues remain contentious. For example, earlier this year, the National Assembly declared Bulgarian to be the official language of the country's armed forces, and that its use was "obligatory when carrying out military duties", prompting protests from the MRF (BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 2 July 1994, quoting Bulgarian Radio, 30 June 1994). In addition, ethnic Turks like other minority groups still experience discrimination in the workplace and in the military service (Country Reports 1993, 1994).

Roma (Gypsies)

While on a national level all citizens are granted constitutional protection against such arbitrary practices as illegal detention, search and seizure, and cruel or inhuman treatment, incidents on the local level are known to occur. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki indicts the government for not extending adequate protection in these areas to the Roma. The organization reported that police frequently are either the perpetrators of violence against Roma or they fail to intervene when attacks are instigated. Moreover, when complaints are filed, prosecutors often fail to take appropriate action (Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, 7 November 1994).

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights points out that the government has introduced reforms in order to address many of these problems, including "investigating and prosecuting charges of excessive use of force by police, programs to hire Romanies as police officers, programs to improve relations between the Romany community and local police and job and literacy training for gypsies" (Critique 1992, 1993, p. 49; see also Country Reports 1993, 1994).

In spite of these reforms, human rights monitors like Amnesty International consistently issue reports which document ongoing ill-treatment of this minority by local authorities and/or communities. Recently, for instance, the robbery and murder of an inhabitant of Dolno Belotintsi on 25 February 1994 by a Roma sparked retaliations against the other Roma living in the community. After ransacking the homes of 20 families, "a group of men from the village, armed with guns, knives, axes, pitch forks and stakes, forced around 30 Roma to leave their homes and ordered them to march to Nikolovo, a village some three kilometres away, and back. The majority of the Roma forced on this march were women with children and elderly people who had not fled from the village" (23 March 1994). On 3 November 1993, a group of 20 Roma caught stealing grapes were "taken...one by one and tied to a metal fence with their hands held behind their backs and beaten by a police seargeant and a crowd of gathered villagers" (Amnesty International, June 1994, p. 11). In April 1993, "around 60 police officers attacked Roma in Novi Pazar, claiming to be in search of criminal suspects. They broke into homes and reportedly beat indiscriminately men, women and children" (Annual Report 1994, 1994).

The U.S. Department of State has also reported extensively on other facets of discrimination experienced by the Roma: "[m]any newspapers routinely attribute crimes to Gypsies before any formal investigation has taken place. The quality of Gypsy housing is relatively poor, with many houses still lacking water, electricity, and sewage facilities. Gypsies reportedly encounter difficulties applying for social benefits. Rural Gypsies are discouraged from claiming land to which they are entitled under the law dividing up agricultural collectives" (Country Reports 1993, 1994). Many of the same problems were enumerated in greater detail in an earlier report published by Helsinki Watch (June 1991).

Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks)

Pomaks constitute a religious minority who are Slavic in origin and recognize Bulgarian as their mother tongue, but who are followers of Islam. This group has also historically been subjected to assimilation and name-changing campaigns, most notably from 1971 to 1973. More recently, Pomaks have fought to maintain a separate identity from ethnic Turks. The issue of forced Turkification has been raised on several occasions. For example, the U.S. Department of State reported that results from the 1992 census were invalidated in two towns due to charges that Bulgarian Muslims were pressured into recording themselves as ethnic Turks, presumably by the MRF (Country Reports 1993, 1994). Conversely, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights determined that the allegations against the MRF could not be substantiated (Annual Report of Activities 1993/94, 1994). At the same time, Pomaks disagree amongst themselves as to the degree to which they could benefit from association with ethnic Turks; some feel a united front with the MRF could politically advantage them, while others prefer to maintain a separate identity (RFE/RL Research Report, 19 March 1993; RFE/RL Research Report, 13 December 1991). Predominantly from rural and agricultural areas, the Pomaks have suffered disproportionately from economic decline and unemployment. Like ethnic Turks, they tend to experience greater discrimination in the workplace (Country Reports 1993, 1994).


The existence of a Macedonian minority has never been officially recognized by the Bulgarian government, except for a brief period after World War II when First Secretary Georgi Dimitrov, whose parents were Macedonian, was the leader of Bulgaria (World Directory of Minorities, 1992, p. 114). Moreover, Macedonian organizations have consistently been denied permission to formally register. The application of "Illinden", for example, has been rejected repeatedly, with the government "labelling it seditious, because it seeks to promote the Macedonian identity, culture, and language in Bulgaria" (RFE/RL Research Report, 13 December 1991, p. 7). Consequently, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the group has been prevented from holding rallies; in April 1993 when a peaceful assembly was organized to honour a Macedonian hero, the police reportedly intervened and beat a number of participants (World Report 1994, 1993; Annual Report 1994, 1994).

4.3   Other Groups at Risk

Evangelists/Religious Sects

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Article 13 of the constitution, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is considered the traditional religion of Bulgaria. According to Human Rights Watch, legislation to restrict activities of non-Orthodox religious bodies was recently introduced in the National Assembly (World Report 1994, 1993). Among other things, the bill proposed "that only the Eastern Orthodox religion...be taught in schools and its doctrine discussed in the national mass media" (International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 1994). These measures tend to receive support from the public, which is said to term growing membership in these groups as an "invasion" (Human Rights Watch, 1993).

Missionaries, evangelists, and other non-Orthodox sects, have been censured by the media for their "non-traditional" activities, with the result that harassment and even violence have increasingly been directed against them. The U.S. Department of State and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights report that Hare Krishnas and Bahais in particular have been targets of assaults and threats (Country Reports 1993, 1994; Annual Report of Activities 1993/94, 1994).

"Former Communists"

A Law for Temporary Introduction of Additional Requirements for Members of the Executive Bodies of the Scientific Organizations and the Higher Certifying Commission ("Panev Law", also referred to as a "lustration" law), passed by the National Assembly and signed by President Zhelev in 1992, has created difficulties for individuals who were, or are perceived to be, former members of the Communist Party. The Law requires persons applying for high-level positions in scientific and academic bodies to prove that they did not maintain certain political affiliations. Although its constitutionality was challenged by other members of parliament, the Constitutional Court ruled in February 1993 that "the law does nothing more than introduce additional professional requirements for members of the elected boards of scientific organizations", and thus, was not unconstitutional (Helsinki Watch, August 1993, p. 10). Concern has been expressed over the "presumption of collective guilt" inherent in the law, the lack of due process for affected individuals, and the opportunities it provides for purging former members of the BCP from academic and other institutions (Country Reports 1993, 1994; Helsinki Watch, 1993; International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 1994).

Measures to remove the imprint left by the Communist Party have also taken the form of criminal indictments against former Communist leaders. While the roles played by certain government officials in the forced assimilation and explusion of ethnic Turks are considered prosecutable by many human rights observers, it is also felt that criminal charges are often levelled for political reasons (Country Reports 1993, 1994; Helsinki Watch, 1993).

Conscientious Objectors

The Bulgarian constitution provides for performing an alternative to military service in Article 59 (2), as "established by a law" (12 July 1991). Amnesty International has expressed concern that because no such law currently exists, conscientious objectors risk being prosecuted for evading military service. The human rights organization learned in October 1993 that some "5,883 men did not report to conscription boards for induction in 1993"; of these, approximately 271 were reported to the public prosecutor for evasion of military service (News Service, 18 October 1993; Annual Report 1994, 1994).


Amnesty International,

Concerns in Europe:November 1993-April 1994, "Bulgaria: Torture and ill-treatment of Roma continues", June 1994


News Service, "Bulgaria: Amnesty International Concerned by Attacks on Roma Community", 23 March 1994


News Service, "Bulgaria: Conscientious Objectors may be Prosecuted and Imprisoned for Evasion of Military Service", 18 October 1993


Annual Report 1994, London, 1994

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts,

"Assembly approves Bulgarian as official language in army", 2 July 1994, quoting Bulgarian Radio, 30 June 1994

Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria,

12 July 1991

Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States,

"Bulgaria", Europa Publications, London, 1994

Eastern Europe Newsletter,

"Bulgaria", 16 November 1994


"Political Risk Summary: Bulgaria", 2 November 1994


"Bulgaria: A Pre-Election General Briefing", 8 October 1991

Encyclopedia of Conflicts, Disputes and Flashpoints in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Successor States,

"Bulgaria", Longman, Harlow, 1993

Helsinki Watch,

"Decommunization in Bulgaria", August 1993


Destroying Ethnic Identity: The Gypsies of Bulgaria, New York, June 1991

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki,

"Increasing Violence Against Romas in Bulgaria", New York, 9 November 1994

Immigration and Refugee Board Documentation Centre,

Response to Information Request, Ottawa, 20 June 1990

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights,

Annual Report of Activities 1993/94, 1994

Keesing's Record of World Events,

News Digest, Longman, Harlow, February 1992


News Digest, Longman, Harlow, March 1990


News Digest, Longman, Harlow, January 1990

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights,

Critique: Review of the U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1992, New York, July 1993


Critique: Review of the U.S. Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, New York, July 1992

Poulton, H.,

The Balkans: Minorities and States in Conflict, Minority Rights Publications, London, 1991


"Bulgarian president calls election for December 18", 17 October 1994


"Bulgarian opinion poll gives lead to ex-communists", 29 September 1994


"Bulgaria party proposes radical pro-reform cabinet", 28 September 1994

RFE/RL Research Report,

"Bulgaria's Political Stalemate", 24 June 1994


"Bulgaria", 22 April 1994


"Bulgaria and Its Emigrants: Past and Present", 2 July 1993


"Bulgaria's Communists: Coming or Going?", 21 May 1993


"Bulgarian Ethnic Groups: Politics and Perceptions", 19 March 1993


"Bulgaria's 1992 Census: Results, Problems, and Implications", 5 February 1993


"Bulgaria: A New Constitution and Free Elections", 3 January 1992


"Minorities and Bulgarian Nationalism", 13 December 1991


"A Year of Crucial Change in Bulgaria", 5 January 1990


"Ethnic Unrest During January", 9 February 1990


Trends in International Migration: Annual Report 1993, "Migratory Movements in Central and Eastern Europe: The Case of Bulgaria, the Former Czech and Slovak Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania", OECD, Paris, 1994

Troebst, S.,

"Ethnopolitics in Bulgaria: The Turkish, Macedonian, Pomak and Gypsy Minorities", Helsinki Monitor, vol. 5, no. 1, 1994, pp. 32-42

U.S. Department of State,

Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993, Washington, D.C., 1994 [electronic format]


Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1989, Washington, D.C., 1990


Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1985, Washington, D.C., 1986

Vasileva, D.,

"Bulgarian Turkish Emigration and Return", International Migration Review, vol. 26, no. 2, 1992, pp. 342-352

World Directory of Minorities,

Longman, Harlow, 1992


All sources are cited. This paper is not, and does not, purport to be, fully exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed, or conclusive as to the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

This information paper was prepared in the Country Research and Analysis Unit of UNHCR's Centre for Documentation and Research on the basis of publicly available information, analysis and comment, in collaboration with Regional Bureau Responsible for Somalia and the UNHCR Statistical Unit. All sources are cited. This paper is not, and does not, purport to be, fully exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed, or conclusive as to the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.