International cooperation between LCRI members
Themba Lewis, who is currently in Egypt and member of the editorial team of the Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter invited Valeria Ilareva to comment on the recently published UNHCR report “No Place to Stay: A Review of the Implementation of UNHCR’s Urban Refugee Policy in Bulgaria“. Below we reproduce the article from the June 2011 issue of the Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter:
Bulgaria and UNHCR’s urban refugee policy
Valeria Ilareva reviews UNHCR’s newly published report on its urban refugee policy as implemented in Sofia, Bulgaria. Dr. Ilareva is the coordinator of the Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants, where she is also a practicing lawyer. For more on detention in Bulgaria, see the Global Detention Project’s Bulgaria profile.
In May 2011 the UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service published ‘No Place to Stay: A Review of the Implementation of UNHCR’s Urban Refugee Policy in Bulgaria’, evaluating the implementation of UNHCR’s urban refugee policy in Sofia. The Bulgarian capital was selected along with Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Nairobi (Kenya) and San Jose (Costa Rica) for the evaluation. Bulgaria was chosen in order to assess the extent to which the policy is relevant to a European Union Member State (albeit one of the poorest) where there is a UNHCR Branch Office and Representation, but where the national government has major engagement with the issue of urban refugees. The review was done by an independent consultant and a member of UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service.
The report outlines the situation facing urban refugees in Bulgaria. Of particular note are the chapters on ‘Access to shelter and services’ and ‘Livelihoods and self reliance’, as they highlight the camp-style conditions currently in place in urban Sofia. According to legal regulation in Bulgaria, every asylum seeker who chooses to live outside the camp-like premises of the State Agency for Refugees is deprived of the right to receive the monthly financial assistance of US$45. At the same time, access to the labour market is not allowed until one year has passed since the registration of the asylum application. Under these circumstances asylum seekers are knowingly exposed to the risk of exploitation and abuse in the informal economy.
The report mentions the planned inauguration of a 300-capacity transit centre for asylum seekers in Pastrogor, the main entry point for asylum seekers on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. This is currently scheduled to take place on 30th May, 2011. This news is met with concern by human rights practitioners in Bulgaria. Unlike the ‘reception centre’ in Sofia, the ‘transit centre’ is closed, disallowing freedom of movement. It is designed to house people undergoing the Dublin procedure on determining the responsible Member State and for fast-track processing of manifestly unfounded applications of ‘illegally staying foreigners’ (Article 47, Paragraph 2.1. of the Law on Asylum and Refugees). The ‘transit centre’ is where asylum seekers who have crossed the Turkish-Bulgarian border irregularly will be detained. Until the opening of the ‘transit centre’ in Pastrogor, the head of the State Agency for Refugees had designated the Busmantsi immigration detention centre in Sofia as a ‘transit centre’.
Over the last few years access to the asylum procedure in Bulgaria has been hindered by the discretional registration of asylum seekers who have crossed the border irregularly (Ilareva 2007). In a recent case of an Iraqi family who had undergone persecution and ill-treatment, the European Court of Human Rights intervened under Rule 39 in order to stop the family’s removal, which amounted to refoulement. The State Agency for Refugees had refused to register the asylum applications of the single mother and her two children and — after keeping them detained in the Busmantsi centre for nearly five months — the migration authorities attempted to deport the family as illegal immigrants. On 10th May, 2011, the family was boarded for deportation and was stopped just before leaving Bulgarian territory following the urgent action of the Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants (LCRI), the Strasbourg court, and the UNHCR representation in Sofia. Rarely is it possible, however, to achieve such a successful outcome, which in this particular case was due to the fact that LCRI had worked on the case for several months and had sufficient evidence to prove that the family belonged to a vulnerable group and had insistently applied for asylum. In Pastrogor, access to legal aid will hardly be possible in view of the distance from the capital, where NGOs providing legal aid are based, without resources for the journey.
The lack of lawyers in the Pastrogor centre is coupled with another issue of concern. As the UNHCR report highlights, legal assistance in Bulgaria is usually sought only after an asylum seeker is served a decision rejecting protection, while access to the asylum and interviewing procedures receive less attention.
Against this background, the report’s recommendation that ‘UNHCR should undertake a risk assessment with respect to the notion of resettling refugees in Bulgaria’ (para.141) is well-founded at present.
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