Bulgaria has started rejecting Iraqi asylum applications

Tuesday 15, April 2008 Sofia, April 15 (UNHCR) – Until a few months ago, Bulgaria was a safe haven for Iraqi refugees. But things are deteriorating after authorities started to reject their asylum claims. UNHCR is alarmed about this sudden change of Bulgaria’s protection regime towards Iraqis. Last year Bulgaria […]

Tuesday 15, April 2008

Sofia, April 15 (UNHCR) – Until a few months ago, Bulgaria was a safe haven for Iraqi refugees. But things are deteriorating after authorities started to reject their asylum claims. UNHCR is alarmed about this sudden change of Bulgaria’s protection regime towards Iraqis.

Last year Bulgaria received around 1000 asylum seekers, half of them Iraqis. Most of them travelled inland trough Turkey.

Up to November 2007, almost every Iraqi asylum seeker in Bulgaria was granted protection: either humanitarian status or full refugee status. Todor Zhivkov, Director of the Registration-Reception Centre for Refugees in Sofia explains the policy change: “Now we are looking more realistically at cases and we refused a number of asylum claims.” None of these cases are concluded as appeal procedures are still going on.

The change of policy is not justified by a change of profile of the new arrivals. Quite to the contrary. Most of the Iraqi asylum seekers continue to be single males as in previous months. However, Bulgaria registers a growing number of families and single mothers with children who are looking for protection in the country.

Alla is a 36-year-old electric engineer. She fled Iraq with her two children and filed an asylum application in Bulgaria nine months ago. She is still waiting for a final decision and hopes to stay here. “I like being here. This is a friendly country”, she says in good Bulgarian.

Before the first rejections were issued, Bulgarian authorities expressed their concern that the increased numbers of Iraqi asylum seeker put pressure on Bulgaria’s limited accommodation capacities.

The UNHCR Representative in Bulgaria, Catherine Hamon Sharpe, is worried by this development: “The individual’s need for protection is the only legitimate reason for granting or denying refugee status. Capacity problems have to be resolved differently.”

Hamon Sharpe points out that Bulgaria received 533 Iraqis in 2007, still a low number compared to other countries in the region such as Greece and Turkey that recorded 5,500 and 3,500 applications respectively.

The UNHCR Representative also keeps reminding the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees that in 2002-2003 it was able to accommodate a much larger number of asylum seekers, partly in reception centres and partly in private accommodation.

Iliana Savova of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee says that authorities started rejecting asylum claims by Iraqis last December. Between December 2007 and March 2008, 41 Iraqi applications were rejected. “The Helsinki Committee is currently representing 22 Iraqis before the Supreme Administrative Court for the judicial review of these decisions,” says Savova

Among Iraqis in Sofia, worries are growing. Noor is much more sincere than one would expect from a 15 year old. Four months ago, she arrived in Bulgaria together with her parents and two younger sisters. The family is anxiously waiting for their asylum application to be decided.

Unlike her sisters, Noor has no time to attend Bulgarian language classes. Her mother has serious heart problems and Noor is taking care of the family. “My mother’s condition has aggravated before our flight due to our situation in Iraq”, she says. The family’s uncertain future in Bulgaria does nothing to improve her state. “Today in the morning they took my mother to the hospital,” says Noor.

Melita H. Sunjic in Sofia, Bulgaria