Sofia’s Schengen Compromise

Juliana Koleva Sofia

Bulgaria is pinning its hopes on joining the border control-free Schengen zone in stages, as its ability to deal with the expected influx of asylum seekers remains in question.

Eight Afghans caught crossing illegally into Bulgaria via the Turkish border (Photo: Bulgarian interior ministry)

Sofia is intent on persuaded its European Union partners it is ready to join the visa and passport free Schengen zone, with new negotiations and proposals on the table.

I had to file my Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence article that will be sent to the selection committee – the people who decide who authored the top three prize-winning stories this year – before the latest developments came to light.

My four-month fellowship investigation centres on Bulgaria’s current asylum policy and its ability to absorb and properly process applications to stay. The issue is, of course, directly related to Sofia’s attempt to join the Schengen zone.

If and when Sofia joins, the number of immigrants and refugees currently seeking to enter Bulgaria in order to reach other EU countries is expected to rise exponentially.

In the past few days, this anticipated increase in pressure on Bulgaria’s borders has been cited by Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the interior minister, as the reason for pursuing a new Schengen option – that Sofia joins Schengen by increments.

The first stage would be the removal of air and sea border controls. Only when this is deemed satisfactory would land border controls also be removed.

Tsvetanov announced this new proposal after returning from top-level meetings in Brussels. Analysts believe he is attempting to prepare the public for a gradual process rather than full membership of Schengen, as this appears to be the only way other EU states will agree to Sofia joining.

"Perhaps… the partial accession to Schengen will provoke debate but, nationally, a staged entry is much better for the protection of potential migration pressure from Turkey and Greece to Bulgaria," Tsvetanov said.

With that, Tsvetanov seems to have indirectly admitted that the country is not yet prepared to cope with the expected rise in immigration – legal and illegal – post-Schengen.

The Bulgarian-Turkish border looks deserted as border guards rely on sensors to track illegal crossings (Photo: Juliana Koleva)

On September 22, the EU’s Council of Interior Ministers is expected to pass this compromise measure. Even staged membership will allow Bulgaria to place restrictions on immigration.

For example, currently, because Sofia is still not a part of Schengen, some legal norms in that zone do not yet apply. In practice this means Bulgaria – unlike Schengen countries – is unable to deny entry to foreigners who fail to meet certain requirements, according to the minister.

“Thus, in the past 10 months alone, 6,800 people who did not meet the requirements of Schengen have entered Bulgaria. Sofia was powerless to stop them because there is no legal basis for this kind of rejection,” Tsvetanov said.

Many will be hoping the authorities introduce measures to speed up asylum decisions during this suggested transitional Schengen period, including changes the EU is attempting to introduce with its proposed common asylum policy.

This is anything but easy, given rising anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries and the large number of refugees worldwide. The UN estimates around 43.7 million people were forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution in 2010 – the highest number in more than 15 years.

This figure included 15.4 million refugees, 27.5 million internally displaced persons and more than 837,000 whose asylum applications across the globe had not yet been decided on.

It is important to note that four-fifths of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, rather than European ones. The 49 least developed nations granted asylum to almost two million refugees.

Pakistan is home to the largest number of refugees in the world (1.9 million), followed by Iran (1.1 million) and Syria (1 million). Three-quarters of the world’s refugees reside in states neighbouring their country of origin.

According to the UN, around 845,800 people applied for asylum or refugee status in 2010 alone. South Africa received the highest number of applications - an estimated 180,600 or one fifth of global applications. The US received the second highest number of applications (54,300) and France the third (48,100).

While these figures are food for thought for those who believe Europe to be inundated with asylum applications, it is clear that Bulgaria needs to drastically improve its ability to properly, and humanely, process many more applications.

This is true today, when Sofia receives approximately 1,000 applications each year. Imagine the situation after Schengen.

Juliana Koleva is a Sofia-based journalist who is participating in the 2011 Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

She will be writing regular updates on her investigation into how Sofia is dealing with a relatively new phenomenon - refugees seeking asylum in Bulgaria.

Fellow Bio

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Juliana Koleva

Juliana Koleva has ten years’ experience as a reporter. Currently, she works on the domestic news desk for the daily Bulgarian business newspaper Dnevnik, mainly covering politics and parliament.

Topic

Topic 2011: Justice

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