Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Bulgaria's new "tougher policy" towards illegal immigration

Last week I read this article in Capital.bg (in Bulgarian - title "The Cabinet is preparing a tougher policy towards illegal immigrants") about the Bulgarian government's new policy plans and then I also read the press release of the Ministry of Interior (in English).

First I want to clarify that I will use the more humane term "undocumented/irregular migrant(s)" because no person is illegal, migrant or not. What a person does (e.g. cross a border without the proper documents) may be illegal but the person him/herself cannot be illegal. Sadly, the Bulgarian government and media still use the outdated term "illegal immigrants".

So the first thing I noticed when reading the press release of MoI is the confusing information about the new plans - the title states "for solving the issue with the increased migration pressure", while the first sentence explains that the aim of the plan is to manage "the crisis resulting from a massive influx of asylum seekers". Then the first measure talks about "illegal immigrants", while the second - about refugees. The fact that one policy is supposed to address these very different groups - undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees - is worrying in itself.

Then the first objective of the plan is "... to limit the number of entering people and accelerate the rate of removal from the territory of those who have no reason to be here". Now "having no reason to be [t]here" is a bit of an oversimplification - surely no one just wandered off across the border and reached Bulgaria. But back to the point - the article in Capital explains in more detail - "the government’s goal is to reduce three times the number of people entering the country illegally and at the same time increase three times the number of people who have been expelled from Bulgaria". Reading this target that the Ministry of Interior has set, my first thought is that anyone without the proper documents, including victims of human trafficking, refugees and asylum seekers, will be immediately treated as an undocumented migrant and expelled, without much concern about his/her human rights and personal situation, simply in order to meet the targets, proclaim the new plan as a success and justify the need for more funds, equipment and manpower. This suspicion becomes even more real by another planned measure (mentioned only in the article of Capital), namely, significantly shorter periods for removal of undocumented migrants. The combination of shorter periods and a target of more removals is a recipe for human rights violations. And to illustrate my concerns, I recently read a country study on the position of victims of trafficking in the criminal and other legal proceedings in Bulgaria (not yet published) where I found this short example:
On 30 October 2003, two women, who had been trafficked to Macedonia for prostitution, managed to escape. Two unfamiliar persons took them across the border on foot, but not through the official check point but through the woods, after which they were detained by the Bulgarian border police officers. The victims told their story to the border police officers and were identified as trafficked persons, however, they were transported to the Kyustendil District Court and sentenced in a speedy proceedings for “illegal crossing of the border” – crime under Article 279 (1) of the Criminal Code [...] [...] the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (Sofia) lobbies for the abolishment of Article 279 (1), which is also widely applied in regard to refugees. They argue that it is a simply structured crime easy to prove – the person must be on Bulgarian territory – and the border police officers use it to increase their investigation rate...

If identified victims of trafficking, Bulgarian nationals, can be prosecuted by the authorities for illegal crossing of the border to "increase their investigation rate", why should we expect anything different for foreign nationals, who cross the border illegally as refugees or asylum seekers. And the media often reports on the deficiencies (in capacity, funds and staff) of the State Agency for Refugees, which even at the moment cannot cope with the influx of Syrian refugees and they are forced to wait for months (while living in terrible conditions) before their applications are processed and they are granted refugee status. But like I said, the need to speed up the process in order to meet the targets, is likely to result in ... well, just very sloppy work!

The second measure of the government's plan includes "increased police presence ... in the areas populated by refugees." However, Capital.bg refers to this measure as "specialised police raids in areas ...". Whichever way you read it, it means simply police harassment over anyone looking at least remotely Arab (which are allegedly the majority of refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants). The police is obliged to protect society with all its members, not only the Bulgarian citizens and not only against refugees and undocumented migrants. But by pointing specifically at refugees/migrants as potential criminals and a threat to Bulgarian citizens, the government is actually starting and stimulating the vicious circle of scapegoating, prejudice, suspicion and social exclusion which only leads to more violence. This is the opposite of the intended integration - it's downright segregation!

Another planned measure, not mentioned in the press release but already under-way, is the construction of a 30-kilometre fence on the border with Turkey. 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria is building a wall to prevent people from coming in, as if we don't remember what the consequences and human costs of the other wall were... The measure was already criticised by the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks who insists that Bulgaria cannot deny entry of Syrian refugees and that walls are expensive but don't do much good.

Lastly, in the past few months there have been a number of instances of hate speech and hate crimes against undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Only a week ago there were three anti-immigrant rallies in Sofia in the same day, organised by different right-wing, nationalistic and football fans groups, including one parliamentary political party, which shouted racial slurs and carried slogans that I don't even want to describe here. The media had a big role to play here too by allowing deranged politicians (again, from a parliamentary party) to describe the Syrian refugees as "terrorists", "man-slaughterers", "AIDS-carriers" who want to turn Bulgaria into a Muslim nation. 

It pains me to say that what I thought was a humanitarian crisis (the influx of Syrian refugees) to which Bulgarians would demonstrate compassion and hospitality, has turned the bigger part of society into raging, blood-thirsty hate-mongers. Bulgaria has always prided itself with the fact that it did not follow Kosovo and Bosnia in the 90's and that in the centre of Sofia, within one square kilometre, there are an Orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, a mosque and a synagogue which coexist peacefully. Now it seems that the "infamous Bulgarian tolerance" (as the politicians like to call it) has simply vanished, just at a time when it is actually needed!