(photo: Bordermonitoring Bulgaria)

Since about mid 2010 Sofia Central Prison has been filling up with asylum seekers, this is as they are entering Bulgaria their rights are not only being ignored but are being purposefully denied by the police, prosecutors’ office and the courts.

According to Article 279(5) of the criminal law asylum seekers are protected from criminal prosecution when crossing the borders without permission. However the criminal justice system in many cases ignores the protected status of asylum seekers who cross the Bulgarian borders. What the prosecutors’ office does is on the rim of legality. Asylum seekers arrested at borders are put into criminal remand prisons and are held as criminals under the charge of Article 279(1) of the criminal law, which is the charge of illegal border crossing. They are almost always left in subhuman conditions that are standard for Bulgarian prisons and especially remand prisons close to borders where asylum seekers are most likely to be arrested and held. A prosecutor will approach that asylum seekers and tell them to the effect that “they are charged with a crime that comes with a maximum sentence of 5 years”, their rights are not explained to them that they are protected in order to claim asylum and they are usually not given access to a lawyer, and when they do get a state lawyer, the state lawyer lies to them to finish the work faster (as is common practice for all state lawyers in Bulgaria). The prosecutor offers them two choices, sign a “deal” (споразумения) which is in effect a confession that the border crossing was a crime. This however is not explained to the asylum seeker. It is explained to them that if they sign this piece of paper they will go free, if not they will get 5 years prison. The inditements are almost never translated into a language the asylum seeker can understand as according to Article 6-3a of the European Convention of Human Rights, this is as the prosecutors office is both lazy and doesn’t want to spend the money on a translation of the inditement. What’s more they are never informed about their rights, i.e. that according to Article 279(5) of the Bulgarian criminal law (HK) “not punished are those who enter the country to use the right to asylum as according to the constitution” “Не се наказва онзи, който влезе в страната, за да се ползува от правото на убежище съгласно с Конституцията.”

The asylum seeker in his/her mind has two choices, sign a piece of paper written in a language they don’t understand and go free or stay in prison for 5 years, as these are the choices offered by prosecutors. Usually these deals result in suspended sentences and this is what the prosecutors represent as “going free”. The suspended sentences usually range from 4 months prison to a year in prison; the expiry date for the suspended sentences is roughly 2 years. It’s a no brainer, the paper is signed and it’s all countersigned and stamped as legal by the judge and the asylum seeker is sent on his/her way, usually to an immigrant prison or asylum seeker “camp”, an open hostel type environment.

Some asylum seekers have family in Western Europe or they are unable to live in Bulgaria due to lack of employment and lack of social and governmental support that is standard in Bulgaria. For obvious reasons some asylum seekers and refugees choose to leave Bulgaria, even some who want to return to their country of origin but who don’t or can’t wait the prolonged wait for personal identification documents to be made by the Ministry of Immigration. If these people are arrested a second time they are again convicted of illegal border crossing, but also the first suspended sentence come into force in addition with the second sentence.

This means in effect that asylum seekers can end up as convicted criminals. Where they usually will serve between 8months and 1.5years. In prison they are constantly discriminated against as they are said to have “small sentences”. They are rarely allowed to work or study and thus reduce their sentences and for the past 5 years not a single asylum seeker convicted under Article 279(1) and Article 279(2) have been “proposed” by the prison administration for early release. This means that as they have “small sentences” they will in practice serve the entirety of their sentences with no hope of being released early for good behaviour (which is actually part of a more general problem within the prisons and the legislation governing convicted people)

During this period in prison, asylum seekers have great difficulties getting money from foreign countries, especially those from war torn countries, for example at the moment Syria and Mali. Most have not spent a lot of time in Bulgaria and therefore do not understand the language or “accepted norms” within the prison system. They are faced with severe discrimination and racism from both the prison staff and Bulgarian prisoners. They also have a hard time understanding that they are convicted criminals and no longer considered asylum seekers. As far as the Association knows, only Bulgaria is convicting asylum seekers for unauthorised border crossings within the European Union and due to the massive social upheavals in Africa and the Middle East the problem is only compounding.

From Jock Palfreeman
Chairman of the Bulgarian Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Association

Below you can find the files of useful leaflets:
Dublin II 2012
Brochure for asylum seekers English 2013
Brochure for asylum seekers French 2013