Accusations of Push-Back and Excessive Use of Force by Bulgarian Border Police

Legal - March 7, 2024

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency – Frontex – and questions about its ability to guarantee respect for human rights in the operations it participates in have once again come under the spotlight after a joint investigation by journalists from several countries revealed the allegedly abusive behaviour of Bulgarian border guards.

Despite changes at the top of the agency early last year following another scandal and promises by the new leadership to restore credibility, the journalistic investigation revealed that the practice of push-back continues, with the tacit complicity of the agency and European Commission officials. To achieve its goal of joining the Schengen free movement area, Bulgaria “voluntarily” committed itself to being part of a pilot project to strengthen the EU’s external borders.

“The results are excellent,” announced European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson. But the findings of the investigation are different: the record number of illegal border crossings by Bulgarian-Turkish border guards turned out to be illegal returns, accompanied by unprecedented violence by Bulgarian police against migrants. But Sofia officially has no data on such cases. Beatings, verbal assaults, dispossession of personal belongings, harassment with police dogs and threats with guns or even shootings – all are said to be part of the arsenal of Bulgarian border guards determined to rid the statistics of illegal migrants.

Frontex employees kept away from ‘hot’ areas on Bulgarian border

According to an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Media Network (BIRN) and Deutche Welle and quoted by RADOR, all these are accusations levelled at Bulgarian colleagues by an employee of the agency’s internal Frontex Fundamental Rights Office (FRO) in a report submitted, anonymously, following an investigation carried out in his own name in 2022.

According to the report, no matter where they are – Asia, North Africa or the Middle East – migrants and refugees are reportedly called “Taliban” by border guards, have everything taken from them and in some cases are attacked with dogs and even shot at to stop them from arriving illegally on EU territory. Although these practices are said to be widespread, there is no evidence, as migrants are not fingerprinted and their details are not documented. Moreover, Frontex employees are reportedly kept away from “hot spots” on the Bulgarian border to avoid official reporting of such cases, says the author of the anonymous report, consulted by journalists who took part in the investigation.

The documents they have obtained reveal not only that the Interior Ministry in Sofia found no evidence of any “unethical behaviour” by border subordinates. On the contrary, internal Frontex reports and communications allegedly show that, despite knowing about the problem, Brussels officials “turned a blind eye”. And the cover-up of the problems went as far as “losing” a child in all this “thick” communication system. This is a case from December 2022, which has remained unsolved to date.

Frontex’s Office for Fundamental Rights has officially reported to Frontex headquarters in Warsaw the disappearance without trace of a boy who was detained in a forest on the Turkish border by two Frontex officers and handed over to the Bulgarian border police. Most likely, he may have been “illegally moved and removed from Bulgarian territory by Bulgarian employees,” the FRO report said. In the same year, another minor – this time the investigators managed to track him down – ended up at a refugee centre in Sofia, where he wanted to apply for asylum. The 15-year-old from Syria, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told journalists how, instead of being informed of his rights, he was taken to a building that resembled a “prison”. Later that night, together with others, he was put in a truck and taken to the Turkish border.

“They made us walk up to a fence that had cameras,” After we got through the fence, there was a kind of canal… and we had to crawl through it. While we were crawling, they were hitting people. I had 20 leva (the currency used in Bulgaria) with me and I told them: take everything I have, just don’t beat me. They took everything and hit me in the back and head,” the 15-year-old claimed.

“So-called violent push-backs involving high levels of violence or other inhuman and humiliating treatment are a common practice of the Bulgarian Border Police,” concludes an official FRO report for 2022-2023.

Bulgaria has “an order” as to what it must do to be welcomed into Schengen and it is fulfilling it “with all its might and with serious human rights violations”, says the director of the Centre for Legal Aid “Voice in Bulgaria”, Diana Radoslavova. Frontex’s presence in Bulgaria has intensified since the beginning of 2022 as part of the joint operation Terra.  The Ministry of Interior in Sofia reported that a total of 330,000 “illegal entry attempts” were prevented on the national territory in 2022 and 2023. However, the director of the refugee and migrant programme of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Ileana Savova, says things would be different: according to available data for 2022, there were more than 5,200 forced returns involving 87,647 people.

“We maintain, based on our sources and regular analysis, that these individuals were detained on the territory of the country. So we’re not talking about forced entry, but return, informal return,” she explained. “We all know what the term for that is: push-back.”

The Bulgarian Interior Ministry denied the accusations and claimed that, over time, there have only been isolated cases of illegal migrants being returned. On the other hand, a few cases of violation of ethical rules, five in all, detected in the first ten months of 2023, have also been sanctioned. The press service of the Ministry of Interior in Sofia said that the Border Police and its new leadership “do not tolerate cases of abuse and violence against illegal border crossers, and every signal that contains sufficient information to be verified is analysed and investigated in a timely manner”.

Frontex leadership replaced after human rights allegations

Frontex’s leadership was replaced in March 2023, after the European Anti-Fraud Office revealed that the agency had broken the rules on human rights by engaging in violent rejections in Greece and Malta.  Heard in the European Parliament after the violent rejections scandal in the Mediterranean, former director Fabrice Leggeri argued in his defence that the 2014 EU regulation on border surveillance was unclear and that the agency could do nothing when a member state government claimed there were no human rights violations.

“I’m sorry, but in the European Union system, if a national government, if a minister sends a letter to the director of an EU agency and says that everything was in accordance with the law, I can’t say I don’t trust you,” Leggeri said in 2020, as quoted by EUObserver.

The new Frontex director, General Hans Lejtens, also appears not to have discussed the matter with his Bulgarian colleagues within a year of his appointment. At least that is the conclusion of the BIRN investigation, which is based on what Frontex’s press service reported: the matter has been referred to the director and is discussed at Frontex management meetings with representatives of member states “when necessary”. Bulgaria, together with Romania, is participating on a voluntary basis in the EU’s pilot project to improve migration management, which provides for border consolidation activities and fast-track asylum procedures for people who have been refused asylum.

“All activities under this pilot project,” stresses the European Commission (EC) in an annex to the June 2023 agreement, “must be carried out in full respect of EU law and fundamental rights, in particular the principle of non-refoulement.”

The head of Frontex’s FRO – Office for the Respect of Human Rights, Jonas Grimheden, continues to warn of allegations of push-back and excessive use of force by the Bulgarian border police. He told BIRN journalists that he frequently raises his concerns in the Frontex Management Board, on which the European Commission is also represented. And this at a time when Frontex has received numerous reports of “serious incidents” reported at the Bulgarian borders in the first half of last year. However, the European Commission congratulates Bulgaria and welcomes the efforts of the authorities in Sofia (and Bucharest) to prevent illegal migrants from entering the EU in support of the “absolutely necessary decision” to admit the two countries to Schengen.