In early November, Bulgarian authorities sent 350 additional military personnel to its border with Turkey because of concerns over increasing migration and refugee pressures. The Bulgarian Interior Ministry reported that during January-September 2021, more than 6,500 people were detained after entering the country irregularly. This was a threefold increase compared to the same period in 2020. Moreover, in August 2021, the Bulgarian parliament voted to send between 400 and 700 soldiers to help build fences along its borders with Greece and Turkey.
While Bulgaria has primarily been considered as a transit country for refugees and migrants, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more refugees and migrants have remained in Bulgaria. In fact, there has been a 57 percent increase in the number of arrivals during 2020, compared to 2019 according to Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry. In addition, in 2020, Bulgarian authorities detained 3,487 migrants compared to 2,184 for the same period in 2019. The number of asylum applications also grew, marking the first annual increase since 2015: a total of 3,525 people applied for protection, mainly from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. 32 percent (1,125) of applicants were children and 799 of those were unaccompanied or separated children.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported that, in 2020, Bulgarian authorities issued 4,658 formal non-admission decisions and carried out 498 “indirect” pushbacks–in which people are denied physical entry onto the country’s territory–affecting 3,493. In addition, authorities carried out 569 direct pushbacks which affected 11,770 individuals. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee also reported that due to the pandemic the average detention duration for asylum seekers in the country increased. This was due to a mandatory fourteen day quarantine period applied to all newly detained third country nationals. If detainees tested positive at the end of the quarantine period, the measure could be extended by a week until the detainee tested negative. However, excluding the quarantine period, the average detention duration was 8 days in 2020.
According to data obtained by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee from the Bulgarian Interior Ministry, the country’s accommodation facilities have a total capacity of 5,160 places. At the end of 2020, there were 1,032 asylum seekers residing in these, marking an occupancy rate of 25 percent. Accommodation outside these centres is permitted under Bulgarian law, however, asylum seekers must pay for it themselves and they are not entitled to any social benefits. As of 31 December 2020, there were 172 asylum seekers residing outside the reception centres.
While Bulgaria has begun a national vaccination campaign against COVID-19, PICUM reported that the country’s vaccination strategy does not mention undocumented migrants. Following advocacy work from civil society organisations however, the strategy is said to now include refugees and asylum seekers held in Bulgaria’s reception centres. Nonetheless, PICUM mentioned that it does not seem that there are any plans to extend the vaccination scheme to undocumented migrants in the country and that the health care system in Bulgaria does not recognise people without residence or identity documents.
- AFP, “Bulgaria to Send 350 Soldiers to Border with Turkey Over Migration Levels,” Euronews, 1 November 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/11/01/bulgaria-to-send-350-soldiers-to-border-with-turkey-over-migration-levels
- PICUM, “The COVID-19 Vaccines and Undocumented Migrants in Bulgaria,” 22 September 2021, https://picum.org/covid-19-vaccines-undocumented-migrants-bulgaria/
- UNICEF, “Bulgaria-Refugee and Migrant Response,” Gender-Based Violence Programme Overview, April 2021, https://www.unicef.org/eca/media/16986/file/Gender-based_Violence_Programme_factsheets_-_Bulgaria_2021.pdf
- Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, “Country Report: Bulgaria: 2020 Update,” Asylum Information Database (European Council on Refugees and Exiles), February 2021, https://asylumineurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/AIDA-BG_2020update.pdf
- Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, “Types of Accommodation,” Asylum Information Database (European Council on Refugees and Exiles), 21 April 2021, https://asylumineurope.org/reports/country/bulgaria/reception-conditions/housing/types-accommodation/
- Water Cannon Truck Seen at the Kaptain Andreevo Border Crossing Point Between Bulgaria and Turkey in 2020, (Hristo Rusev, AP Photo, “Bulgaria to Send 350 Soldiers to Border with Turkey Over Migration Levels,” Euronews, 1 November 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/11/01/bulgaria-to-send-350-soldiers-to-border-with-turkey-over-migration-levels)