Sofia has taken the first steps towards stopping the use of detention centres for immigrants after the publication of a Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence report into the routine ‘jailing’ of asylum seekers in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian state has declared that it will no longer detain at least some asylum seekers who are currently housed in closed detention centres that should only be used for the temporary detention of illegal immigrants.
Foreigners arrested for illegally crossing the state boundary who apply for refugee status will be accommodated directly in open reception centres for refugees run by the State Agency for Refugees.
The government announced the move on November 9, days after the publication of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence’s report on the treatment of asylum seekers in Bulgaria: Bulgarian Asylum Policy Pushes Migrants West
Until now, asylum seekers – including women and children - had been routinely locked up in closed centres. Residents are only able to leave the centres for short walks in fenced-off grounds twice each day.
The detention of asylum seekers in closed centres is against both European legislation for the reception of migrants, including refugees, and national Bulgarian legislation.
Representatives of the responsible institution explained that the lack of capacity in specialised, open centres for asylum seekers has forced the authorities, at least temporarily, to put those people in prison-like centres for illegal immigrants.
At the same time, however, the government has delayed for several years the opening of a new open centre near the village of Pastrogor on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. This means it seems unlikely that Sofia will be able to increase the number of places in open centres available to asylum seekers.
In addition, only foreigners who apply for asylum at the border will be housed in open centres. Those who enter the country first and apply later will remain in closed centres.
Representatives of the Migration Directorate within the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior, speaking on condition of anonymity, told BIRN they are sceptical that the change will mean that a significant number of asylum seekers will be housed in open centres.
They point to the continued lack of capacity in open centres and ask when that will change. They also note that the numbers of immigrants who apply for asylum at the border is relatively small.
Despite these remaining questions, the Bulgarian government has admitted that there is a problem with the reception of asylum seekers and refugees and has at least shown signs of intending to improve the system.
Something that the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme has contributed to.
Juliana Koleva is a Sofia-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
In order to foster quality reporting, initiate regional networking among journalists and advance balanced coverage on topics that are central to the region as well as to the EU, the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme is supported by the ERSTE Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.
Journalists from the Balkans are increasingly required to cover complex reform issues, taking in a regional and Europe-wide dimension. The fellowship provides editorial guidance, training and adequate funding to do so.
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