Bulgaria's jailing and criminalisation of refugees is ‘inhumane’, says UN

Bulgarian government may be 'encouraging intolerance', says UN's human rights high commissioner

Harry Cockburn
Thursday 11 August 2016 20:06 BST
Vitosha Boulevard and the St Nedelya Eastern Orthodox church in Sofia, Bulgaria
Vitosha Boulevard and the St Nedelya Eastern Orthodox church in Sofia, Bulgaria (Getty)

Bulgaria’s treatment of migrants and refugees arriving in the country may be violating international law, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said two visits by UN staff had revealed “inhumane and unacceptable” policies which could put many migrants in a “Catch-22 situation” in which they are unable to qualify as refugees in Bulgaria but are also unable to return to their home country.

Mr Zeid said: “One of the most serious problems is that virtually all people entering Bulgaria in an irregular manner are detained as a matter of course.”

“Even worse, they may also be prosecuted and jailed - for a year or even more - if they try to leave the country. The act of leaving the country is criminalised in spite of the right of everyone, under international law, to leave a country, including their own,” he told ReliefWeb, the UN’s human rights news website.

He added: “This means that people who do not qualify under the strict definition of a refugee, but still have legitimate reasons for being unable to return to their home country, have hardly any avenues open to them. This is clearly inhumane and unacceptable.”

Mr Zeid also raised concerns about the quality of the legal trials migrants and refugees go through when arriving in the country.

“There are migrants who do not have access to adequate legal representation or translation services, to the extent that they are sometimes even unaware that they have been prosecuted. This is clearly contrary to fair trial and due process safeguards,” he said.

Persistent allegations of physical abuse and theft of the possessions of migrants arriving in the country by border control guards has also been documented, with little done to address such concerns the high commissioner said.

“My team was informed that attacks and abuses against migrants and refugees are rarely, if ever, punished,” Mr Zeid said. “Especially if they are committed by police, border guards or other government officials.”

He added: “Rising xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism are among the most worrying threats to human rights in Europe today.

“The Bulgarian government is not doing enough to challenge these alarming trends. Indeed in the view of some, it is actually encouraging intolerance. Leadership is needed to create an environment conducive to respect for human rights, as well as to end violations and abuses when they occur.”

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