NOT A PRISON? On paper the centre in Bousmantsi does not qualify as a prison facility. In reality, however, it acts as one.
A place exists in Bulgaria where an individual can be legally held for up to 18 months against their will without knowing exactly why and without being able to do anything about it. To "qualify", they must either be a refugee, asylum seeker or a third country national living in Bulgaria without ID documents from their home country. This establishment is called the Centre for Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners in Sofia’s Bousmantsi borough which operates under the Interior Ministry’s Migration Directorate.
The Sofia Echo has covered the Bousmantsi centre ever since it opened in 2006, supposedly as a civilised solution to the challenges Bulgaria faces as a European Union "frontier" country, a year before Bulgaria’s scheduled EU accession.
In 2006, illegal immigrants from Arab, Asian and African countries as well as asylum seekers and refugees were kept in miserable conditions in something resembling barracks in the industrial part of Sofia’s Drouzhba borough. Acknowledging the need for better treatment of illegal immigrants and refugees, the Bulgarian authorities advertised the new building in Bousmantsi as the answer to all their problems, at least in terms of living conditions.
It is supposed to accommodate foreign nationals who have been denied refugee status in Bulgaria and who are waiting to be deported back to their home country, or another destination. Four years after it opened, the centre is now used by authorities as a place to send all foreigners with ID problems regardless of their legal status. These include not just refugees and asylum seekers, but also people who have been living in the country for years, who have married Bulgarian nationals, have children and who have developed their businesses in the country.
Line 1 - refugees and asylum seekers
On paper, the authority dealing with granting or refusing political refugee status or any other kind of refugee status and asylum is the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) which follows the Refugees and Asylum Act. It is a bit of a legal jungle because, according to this law, every asylum seeker must apply for refugee status to the SAR. The agency starts an investigation and launches a procedure to establish if there are grounds for granting the foreigner such status. This lasts several months. During this period asylum seekers must live in SAR-administered buildings.
If, as in most cases, the foreigner’s motion is denied, they have the right to appeal against the denial in court. After the court rules on the appeal, if it confirms the previous SAR denial, then the foreigner falls under the jurisdiction of the Migration Directorate and only then he or she must be sent to the Bousmantsi centre pending deportation. However, the SAR is currently repairing its own facilities, hence asylum seekers are being sent directly to Bousmantsi.
The wider problem is that, until recently, no legal definition set a time frame for how long such people could be held in Bousmantsi. In many cases the procedure of deportation or expulsion lasts many months – even years – due to administrative reasons and during this time the foreigner is kept in Bousmantsi without the right to leave. In effect, the facility is a prison.
This changed only in 2009 when an amendment to the Foreigners Act, under which the Migration Directorate works, ruled that people could be held in centres such as Bousmantsi for no more than 18 months. The change followed the case of a Chechen asylum seeker, Said Kadzoev, who had been held without trial at Bousmantsi since October 2006.
In November 2009, the European Court of Justice ruled that his incarceration violated the terms of the EC Return Directive which stipulates that no period of detention for illegal immigrants or asylum seekers – if this is the only "transgression" – should exceed 18 months. The ruling was described at the time as a great victory for human rights lawyers working in Bulgaria, most notably the Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants (LCRI) and the Centre for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria.
The two organisations are the two main lines of defence for people held in Bousmantsi, providing them with legal help. It was indeed a big step in changing the status quo but, according to lawyer Valeria Ilareva from the LCRI, more needs to be done to guarantee immigrants’ rights. She says that nothing stops authorities from detaining people who have just been released from Bousmantsi again every time the 18-month period has expired. Indeed the directive only says that the period of detention should not exceed 18 months but it says nothing about repeated detentions of the very same people.
Line 2 – no ID
In cases when foreigners are detained without any ID in Bulgaria, they are immediately sent to Bousmantsi. After their detention, the Migration Directorate notifies the respective embassies in Bulgaria who in return should issue the foreigners ID to enable them to return to their native countries.
There are many examples, however, of third country nationals who have been living in Bulgaria for more than a decade without proper ID from their home countries, who have been allowed to marry for a Bulgarian, have children and start a business. One such example, which caused widespread public outcry at the end of 2009, is that of an Armenian family with two children who settled in Bulgaria in the early 1990s.
Despite the fact that they did not have Bulgarian IDs, but just a foreigner residence permit, the father was allowed to register a small business while the two children (a boy and a girl) continued with their education. The family managed to completely integrate in Bulgaria; during all this time they regularly paid social and health care contributions. In 2000, the residence permit expired and was not renewed because Bulgaria signed a visa agreement with Armenia.
The family has applied for Bulgarian passports but because the two children had no ID documents (since they had left Armenia a decade ago) they were denied. And, according to the law, the two children had to be sent to Bousmantsi and deported to Armenia because, according to the latter’s legislation, Armenian passports can only be issued in Armenia. Once out of Bulgaria, however, the two children will immediately get a 10-year ban for entering the country as they have been "caught" living illegally in Bulgaria without ID documents.
To avoid being sent to Bousmantsi, the boy went into hiding, unlike his 21-year-old sister who was sent there. The row that this absurd case triggered in the media led to Bozhidar Dimitrov, Minister without Portfolio, deferring the police order by which the entire family had to be deported out of Bulgaria on October 27 2009. Currently, the family is applying for asylum to President Georgi Purvanov.
Besides the legal side of the Bousmantsi issue, the centre’s living conditions have been subject to never-ending complaints from detainees. The establishment has seen a number of hunger strikes and protests over the past four years. The latest occurred in February when 25 detainees staged a hunger strike, demanding more humane treatment and better living conditions and health services. The strike ended after the centre’s management promised to improve conditions, lawyer Diana Daskalova from the Centre for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria told The Sofia Echo. Detainees were motivated to start the strike because of the recent shake-up of the system when both the head of the Migration Directorate and SAR were sacked and charged with various wrongdoings.
Threat to national security
A big problem for third country nationals living in Bulgaria and and those seeking asylum or refugee status, according to human rights lawyers, is the wide-ranging definition of the meaning of a "threat to Bulgaria’s national security". Every asylum seeker is checked by the State Agency for National Security (SANS) to verify if he or she is a national security threat. Should this turn to be the case the foreigner is immediately sent to Bousmantsi pending extradition or expulsion.
The problem, according to Ilareva, is that SANS does not say what this threat to national security is based on. This means that as long as SANS says someone is a threat, then they must be. "People just get told they pose such a threat to Bulgaria and that’s it. They never see a document or something accusing them of something," she said.
It is not just that. When people decide to appeal against SANS’s ruling, the court is not obliged to look into the evidence that had made SANS declare someone to be a national security threat. "This means that judicial control over SANS orders is a formality and ineffective and one that opens the way to administrative abuse of power," she said. "The result is that foreigners stand no chance of proving a SANS order wrong in court."
Hence Bulgaria keeps losing cases in the European Court of Human Rights. Such was the case with a Syrian businessman who had been living in Bulgaria for 17 years and who was suddenly sent to Bousmantsi in May 2009 where he currently waits to be deported because he allegedly posed a national security threat.
To change this situation the Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants and the Centre for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria, on February 1, asked for legal changes that will bring effective judicial control over SANS actions regarding foreigners. The NGOs also asked for a regulatory framework that regulates the status of those immigrants who have been released from Bousmantsi but who, for some reason, have been unable to leave the country.
"These are people who live in a legal vacuum, without ID documents, without the right to education or employment and who are left on their own with no place to live," Ilareva said. The NGOs propose a set of criteria according to which such people should be granted legal status in Bulgaria. Such people should have had a minimum of a three-year stay in Bulgaria and must have an employer willing to hire them. A petition has been launched in support of these demands, soon to culminate in a written proposal to be sent to authorities, Daskalova said.
In light of all the negative public reaction to the Bousmantsi issue, the response from authorities has been insufficient. The fact that SANS and Interior Ministry did not answer the NGOs invitation to attend their February 1 news conference and discuss their proposal speaks for itself.
The same day The Sofia Echo sent a list of questions to both institutions on the issue. By the time the paper went to the printers, however, no response was received. As for contacting the head of Bousmantsi centre, Yotko Andreev, this has also proved a mission impossible. So too is finding any kind of contact details for the centre. "They live in some kind of secrecy.
For example, it took me a year to get access to the centre’s internal regulations book, which sets all internal rules of behavior and subsequent penalties, and I succeeded only because the court ordered them to," Daskalova said.
Eventually The Sofia Echo managed to get Andreev’s phone number but failed to get any response. The Sofia Echo’s only reply came from an employee who did not identify himself but who said that all the information about malpractices in Bousmantsi was pure speculation.