Bulgaria gets tougher on Iraqi asylum applications

News Stories, 21 April 2008

© UNHCR/I.Grigorov
An asylum seeker holds up his application at an immigration office in Bulgaria.

SOFIA, Bulgaria, April 21 (UNHCR) Until a few months ago, Bulgaria was regarded as a safe haven for Iraqi refugees. But the UN refugee agency fears that the Balkans nation has changed its protection policy towards Iraqis.

Bulgaria used to grant either humanitarian status or full refugee status to almost every Iraqi who asked for asylum after arriving in the country, usually overland from Turkey. That meant 533 people last year, about half the number of asylum seekers registered in Bulgaria in 2007.

But Bulgarian immigration officials rejected 41 Iraqi asylum applications between last December and March this year, according to Iliana Savova of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, an independent human rights organization. During the same period, the government granted refugee status to two asylum seekers and humanitarian status to 60.

The government insists it has simply become more rigorous in assessing applications and making status determination rulings. "We are looking more realistically at cases and we have refused a number of asylum claims," said Todor Zhivkov, director of the Registration-Reception Centre for Refugees in Sofia.

These cases are currently under appeal. The Helsinki Committee is seeking judicial review of the decisions made in the cases of 22 of the Iraqis, whom it is representing.

But UNHCR is worried at the apparent change of policy, which the agency believes is not justified by any change of profile of the new arrivals. Most Iraqi asylum seekers continue to be single males, but a growing number of families and single mothers with children are also looking for protection in Bulgaria.

Such as Alla, a 36-year-old electrical engineer. She fled from Iraq with her two children and filed an asylum application in Bulgaria nine months ago. "I like being here. This is a friendly country," Alla, speaking in Bulgarian, told UNHCR visitors. She is still waiting for a final decision.

Before the first asylum rejections were issued in December, Bulgarian immigration authorities expressed their concern that the growing number of Iraqis seeking asylum was putting pressure on Bulgaria's limited accommodation capacity.

But UNHCR Representative in Bulgaria Catherine Hamon Sharpe argued that capacity problems must be resolved differently. "The individual's need for protection is the only legitimate reason for granting or denying refugee status," she insisted.

Hamon Sharpe noted that the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in Bulgaria last year 533 was low compared to neighbouring Greece (5,500) and Turkey (3,500). She also recalled that the Bulgarian State Agency for Refugees had in 2002-2003, for example, accommodated much larger numbers of asylum seekers, some in reception centres and some in private quarters.

In 2002, Bulgaria received a total 2,888 asylum applications the largest annual number in its history followed by 1,549 in 2003. Most of the applicants were from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Iraqis in Sofia are becoming more and more concerned about their chances of remaining in the country. In some cases, the uncertainty is affecting their health.

While her two younger sisters attend Bulgarian language classes, 15-year-old asylum seeker Noor helps her father and looks after her ailing mother, who suffers from serious heart problems. The family arrived in Bulgaria four months ago and applied for asylum.

"My mother's condition was aggravated before our flight due to our situation in Iraq," Noor said, adding that the continuing stress in Bulgaria had made things worse. "This morning they took my mother to hospital," she added.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Sofia, Bulgaria

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Asylum-Seekers

UNHCR advocates fair and efficient procedures for asylum-seekers

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

France is one of the main destinations for asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 55,000 new asylum applications in 2012. As a result of the growing number of applicants, many French cities are facing an acute shortage of accommodation for asylum-seekers.

The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

The former meat-packing plant is home to about 100 asylum-seekers, mostly from Chad, Mali and Somalia, but also from Georgia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries. Most are single men, but there are also two families.

In this dank, rat-infested empty building, the pipes leak and the electricity supply is sporadic. There is only one lavatory, two taps with running water, no bathing facilities and no kitchen. The asylum-seekers sleep in the former cold-storage rooms. The authorities have tried to close the squat several times. These images, taken by British photographer Jason Tanner, show the desperate state of the building and depict the people who call it home.

Zero-Star "Hotel" that Asylum-Seekers Call Home in Dijon

Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

Posted on 12 June 2007

Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

Posted on 20 February 2007

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Iraq: Khaled Hosseini VisitPlay video

Iraq: Khaled Hosseini Visit

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Khaled Hosseini, a former refugee from Afghanistan, met Syrian refugees during a trip to northern Iraq. The best-selling novelist talked to many of the refugees, including an aspiring young writer.
Italy: Mediterranean RescuePlay video

Italy: Mediterranean Rescue

The Italy Navy rescues hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers on the high seas as the numbers of people undertaking the crossing of the Mediterranean from North Africa grows.
Iraq: Innovation & Refugee ShelterPlay video

Iraq: Innovation & Refugee Shelter

The IKEA Foundation is funding the development of durable and easy-to-assemble shelters for refugees. Syrians in northern Iraq have been among the first to try them out.