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Bulgaria: UNHCR concerned about calls for expulsions following tensions at overcrowded and substandard reception centre for asylum-seekers

Briefing notes

Bulgaria: UNHCR concerned about calls for expulsions following tensions at overcrowded and substandard reception centre for asylum-seekers

29 November 2016
Refugees staying at a former military barracks in Harmanli in Bulgaria. Near the Bulgarian border with Turkey, a former military barracks in Harmanli has been converted into a vast complex for housing refugees.

UNHCR is concerned that a protest at Bulgaria’s largest reception centre for asylum-seekers has prompted calls for asylum-seekers to be expelled on national security grounds.

UNHCR urges the Bulgarian government to decongest the Harmanli reception centre, improve living conditions and strengthen management of the centre. Most of all, UNHCR urges the government to establish a constructive dialogue with asylum-seekers staying in the centre. UNHCR will continue to support the efforts of the authorities to improve conditions and to work with the refugees and local communities to diffuse any tensions.

Tensions escalated last week at Harmanli, Bulgaria’s largest reception centre for asylum-seekers, some 250 kilometres south-east of the capital, Sofia, after the authorities introduced limited access in and out of the already overcrowded centre, citing health concerns. Asylum-seekers protested this decision and the poor conditions at the centre. This included several hundred residents throwing rocks and setting tires on fire. The police used rubber bullets and water cannon to contain the crowd.

More than 300 asylum-seekers were arrested. Concerns over reception conditions and overcrowding have remained unaddressed, which fuels frustration and tensions among residents, and has led to acts of vandalism. Harmanli is seriously overcrowded, since it is hosting 3,100 asylum-seekers, of whom one third are children, when its official capacity is 2,710. In addition to being overcrowded, sanitary conditions at the centre are also concerning, with intermittent warm water supply. There are also serious challenges on provision of medical care, including lack of medicine. Moreover, there are no recreational facilities or activities for children or adults

Reception conditions are also substandard at other reception centres and detention facilities in Bulgaria. The temporary detention facility of Elhovo, near the border with Turkey, is occupied at nearly 130 per cent of its capacity in deplorable conditions.

While UNHCR does not in principle object to the return of people who have not been granted international protection, such returns should only take place if all procedural guarantees are fully respected, including access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure and to effective judicial review.


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