Bulgaria gets tougher on Iraqi asylum applications

News Stories, 21 April 2008

© UNHCR/I.Grigorov
An asylum seeker holds up his application at an immigration office in Bulgaria.

SOFIA, Bulgaria, April 21 (UNHCR) Until a few months ago, Bulgaria was regarded as a safe haven for Iraqi refugees. But the UN refugee agency fears that the Balkans nation has changed its protection policy towards Iraqis.

Bulgaria used to grant either humanitarian status or full refugee status to almost every Iraqi who asked for asylum after arriving in the country, usually overland from Turkey. That meant 533 people last year, about half the number of asylum seekers registered in Bulgaria in 2007.

But Bulgarian immigration officials rejected 41 Iraqi asylum applications between last December and March this year, according to Iliana Savova of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, an independent human rights organization. During the same period, the government granted refugee status to two asylum seekers and humanitarian status to 60.

The government insists it has simply become more rigorous in assessing applications and making status determination rulings. "We are looking more realistically at cases and we have refused a number of asylum claims," said Todor Zhivkov, director of the Registration-Reception Centre for Refugees in Sofia.

These cases are currently under appeal. The Helsinki Committee is seeking judicial review of the decisions made in the cases of 22 of the Iraqis, whom it is representing.

But UNHCR is worried at the apparent change of policy, which the agency believes is not justified by any change of profile of the new arrivals. Most Iraqi asylum seekers continue to be single males, but a growing number of families and single mothers with children are also looking for protection in Bulgaria.

Such as Alla, a 36-year-old electrical engineer. She fled from Iraq with her two children and filed an asylum application in Bulgaria nine months ago. "I like being here. This is a friendly country," Alla, speaking in Bulgarian, told UNHCR visitors. She is still waiting for a final decision.

Before the first asylum rejections were issued in December, Bulgarian immigration authorities expressed their concern that the growing number of Iraqis seeking asylum was putting pressure on Bulgaria's limited accommodation capacity.

But UNHCR Representative in Bulgaria Catherine Hamon Sharpe argued that capacity problems must be resolved differently. "The individual's need for protection is the only legitimate reason for granting or denying refugee status," she insisted.

Hamon Sharpe noted that the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in Bulgaria last year 533 was low compared to neighbouring Greece (5,500) and Turkey (3,500). She also recalled that the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees had in 2002-2003, for example, accommodated much larger numbers of asylum seekers, some in reception centres and some in private quarters.

In 2002, Bulgaria received a total 2,888 asylum applications the largest annual number in its history followed by 1,549 in 2003. Most of the applicants were from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Iraqis in Sofia are becoming more and more concerned about their chances of remaining in the country. In some cases, the uncertainty is affecting their health.

While her two younger sisters attend Bulgarian language classes, 15-year-old asylum seeker Noor helps her father and looks after her ailing mother, who suffers from serious heart problems. The family arrived in Bulgaria four months ago and applied for asylum.

"My mother's condition was aggravated before our flight due to our situation in Iraq," Noor said, adding that the continuing stress in Bulgaria had made things worse. "This morning they took my mother to hospital," she added.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Sofia, Bulgaria