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UN agency warns Bulgaria is clamping down on asylum claims by Iraqis

UN agency warns Bulgaria is clamping down on asylum claims by Iraqis

Bulgaria has become much tougher in the past few months in processing the asylum claims of Iraqis, despite no apparent change in the overall profile of the arrivals, the United Nations refugee agency warned today.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the South-East European country used to grant either full refugee status or humanitarian status to almost every Iraqi who asked for asylum after arriving, usually from Turkey.

But figures released by an independent human rights organization indicate that between last December and this March, Bulgarian immigration officials rejected 41 Iraqi asylum claims and granted refugee status to just two applicants and humanitarian status to 60.

UNHCR said many of the cases were now under appeal, although the Government in Sofia had informed the agency that it had simply become more rigorous in assessing claims and making status rulings.

“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,” it said in a news release. “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.”

The agency said that, before their first asylum applications were rejected in December, Bulgarian authorities had expressed concern that the Iraqis were placing pressure on the country’s limited accommodation capacity.

Cahterine Hamon Sharpe, UNHCR representative in Bulgaria, said the capacity problems have to be resolved in other ways.

“The individual’s need for protection is the only legitimate reason for granting or denying refugee status,” she said, noting that only 533 Iraqis sought asylum in Bulgaria last year, compared to about 5,500 in neighbouring Greece and 3,500 in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the agency has issued a position document advising European Union governments to refrain from returning asylum-seekers to Greece until further notice because the country does not have “essential procedural safeguards” throughout the refugee status determination process, despite recent efforts by authorities to improve their actions.

As a result, asylum-seekers “often lack the most basic entitlements, such as interpreters and legal aid, to ensure that their claims receive adequate scrutiny from the asylum authorities,” a spokesperson for UNHCR told reporters in Geneva on Friday.

The spokesperson added that reception conditions in Greece also remain short of both European and wider international standards, and called on the Government to review its procedures and practices.