“The police officers started beating us with batons; some used their fists and boots. Reinforcements arrived and they dragged us back to the Turkish border.”
This account was documented by Human Rights Watch, which interviewed 19-year-old “Mohammed,” one of 43 Syrian migrants alleged to have been abused by Bulgarian border police.
The migrants had entered Bulgaria this month from Turkey in the hope of seeking asylum.
However, border police pushed them back to the Turkish side, and in the process abused them and stole their possessions.
Three separate incidents were documented and investigated by HRW. Lydia Gall, the Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher for HRW, said they need to be investigated by the European Commissioner for Home Affairs.
The humanitarian crisis in Syria has escalated to unimaginable heights, and some migrants do not consider neighboring Turkey safe for asylum-seekers.
Turkey is the only country that retains the original limitation of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees from Europe. This means that under Turkish law, it is not possible for a refugee from Syria or any other non-European country to be granted asylum.
Gall said: “At best, Turkish law regards non-European refugees as asylum seekers who can never be granted asylum on Turkish territory, therefore it cannot be considered a safe third country under EU law.”
The EU stipulates that a third country can only be regarded as safe if it has ratified and observes the provisions of the Geneva Conventions without geographical limitations.
Even with the current wave of Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey, it still cannot be considered safe as it has still not changed its position on the Refugee Convention.
It is unlikely that Turkey will force Syrian refugees to return, as it has tolerated the situation for so long.
However, since Ankara has put geographical limitations on the Refugee Convention, it has the option of returning asylum-seekers from non-European countries.
The safety of these migrants has been called into question by HRW, which believes that the pushback to Turkey by Bulgarian border police was wrong.
On Sept. 7, 21-year-old “Hussein” travelled to Bulgaria with his family, in a group of 16 people. Border police caught them, took their phones, money and water, and made them lie face-down on the ground.
“The police kicked me and some of the other men. We were beaten with batons. The police then told us to ‘go, go,’ and pointed to the forest in the direction of Turkey.”
The abuse of these Syrian migrants is consistent with allegations made by HRW of abuse that took place in April this year.
An investigation by Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry, whose remit the border police falls under, concluded that these incidents never occurred.
“Two incidents have been investigated in the last six months, and there is no evidence to suggest that this happened on Bulgarian territory,” said a ministry spokesperson, adding that that Bulgaria guarantees the life and health of all people crossing the border.
Gall dismissed this statement in the face of detailed accounts from migrants
“You just have to look at the evidence, which speaks for itself. We have detailed consistent and corroborated testimonies from victims and witnesses to support the claims of abuse and push-backs at the border,” she said.
HRW said Bulgarian authorities should hold those accountable for their actions. They “should respect the right of those fleeing war and persecuted countries,” said Gall.
A spokesperson for the European Commissioner said the claims are being investigated and taken very seriously.