The United Nations refugee agency today welcomed assurances from the Bulgarian Government of quick action to fix dire conditions for those seeking asylum within its borders, as the country strains to cope with the increasing number of new arrivals.
So far this year, Bulgaria has received about 3,000 asylum applications, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is three times the yearly average of the past decade. August saw a sharp rise to some 50 new arrivals (mainly Syrian families) per day.
“Although overall numbers are low relative to some other European countries, Bulgaria’s asylum system cannot keep pace with the new arrivals,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva.
Last Friday, UNHCR’s Regional Representative for Central Europe, Montserrat Feixas Vihe, Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, and other senior officials discussed the need for new accommodation facilities to relieve overcrowding and for asylum-seekers to be released from detention.
The three existing accommodation centres operated by Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees are “overflowing, and conditions are both unsafe and dire,” noted Ms. Fleming. “People sleep in corridors and cook on flimsy burners in crowded dormitories. TV, internet rooms and child care spaces have been hastily turned into makeshift bedrooms accommodating as many as seven families together.
“Up to 100 people share a single bathroom, with no separate facilities for men, women and children. Education and recreational activities are scant, and several hundred children are missing out entirely on school,” she added.
The overcrowding is straining relations among asylum-seekers, Ms. Fleming said, adding that the situation is made worse by a slow asylum procedure. “People typically stay in accommodation centres for a year while their refugee claims are being assessed, even though the law states that applications should be decided within six months,” she noted.
At Friday’s meeting, UNHCR offered to increase technical assistance to Bulgaria in the form of training and support at every stage of the asylum process from registration to decision-making on refugee claims.
According to the agency, Bulgaria has received about 2,000 Syrians since the start of Syria’s conflict two and half years ago. Across the European Union, some 41,000 Syrians sought asylum in the same period.