by Gabriel Hershman; photography by Dragomir Ushev

Bulgaria's forgotten foreigners languish in limbo. And the state seems indifferent

busmantsi refuge facility 2.jpg

Imagine you have committed no crime yet you are imprisoned for weeks, months, even years – without a release date. There's no point tearing days off a calendar. If you protest you could be placed in isolation for an unspecified period.

You may think we are referring to imprisoned dissidents under Communism or conditions in a Third World banana republic. Actually, you are just eight kilometres outside of Sofia and it's the present day. Welcome to Busmantsi – a Special Centre for the Temporary Accommodation of Foreigners. Despite its non-threatening title, this establishment, which falls under the control of the Interior Ministry's Migration Directorate, is no hotel. Phone calls are permitted but police guards monitor all other activities and “guests”, housed in barrack-like dormitories, have no freedom of movement.

Busmantsi's grim façade, towering walls, barbed wire and Fort Knox security may lead you to conclude that it houses some of Bulgaria's most dangerous offenders. Yet we interviewed a mild-mannered lady of 70 who's been at Busmantsi for a year. Raisa Petrovna Todorova told me she was from Turkmenistan. She entered Bulgaria to fulfil a promise to her late (Bulgarian) husband to visit the country. She was robbed of all her possessions and ID papers on a train. The authorities, unable to establish her identity, put her in Busmantsi. Raisa has no money, no lawyer and no idea about her release date. Her nearest consulate – in Istanbul – seems uninterested in her case. When I met her she appeared disorientated, wanting me to tell her when she would be freed. If only I knew.

Busmantsi, as of the end of the summer, was currently “home” to 115 people (but this number varies considerably), mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq. The centre, with a maximum capacity of 600 people, opened last June. Two similar “facilities” will start operating soon. Most inmates are “illegal aliens” or rejected asylum seekers, awaiting deportation to their countries of origin. The state has authorised their expulsion without enforcing the order. A smaller number are asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be heard by Bulgaria's State Agency for Refugees. (Following the recent construction of Busmantsi, all undocumented asylum seekers caught at the border are sent there).

Three of the inmates are aliens who have been granted refugee status, yet deemed state security risks. However, there are no indicted criminals at Busmantsi. Their only “offence” is that they lack documents entitling them to stay legally in Bulgaria. More than 36 people have now been detained for longer than 18 months Some have been held, pending deportation, for years. One Cuban man has been held (in different units) since April 2004.

The outside world doesn't seem concerned. So it comes as a relief to know that some prying eyes are probing behind closed doors – in particular, lawyers from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), a refugees' and migrants' legal protection organisation. BHC lawyer Iliana Savova visits Busmantsi every week. She says the centre violates Article Five of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), whose unwritten practice dictates that no person should spend more than six months in custody pending deportation or expulsion orders. The BHC appeals against protracted detentions, trying to keep within the ECHR's guidelines. To outsiders it seems a modest aim. “When our European colleagues hear this, they are surprised that we're campaigning for the implementation of six months' detention,” says Iliana. In the UK, for example, it's much shorter.

Djaved Nouri, Afghan citizen, was told by the authorities that he was a national security threat. He still does not know why

Djaved Nouri, Afghan citizen, was told by the authorities that he was a national security threat. He still does not know why

Why can't the authorities just deport them and put them on a plane home? Ministries blame embassies for obstructing deportations. And Busmantsi's director blames the State Centre for Refugees for protracted detentions. However, the BHC believes that procedural delays are concealing greater abuses. Lawyers believe that “offenders” should make regular appearances at police stations instead, a cheaper and more civilised method. “These people may be illegal aliens but you have to deport them in a humane and dignified manner. They are just offenders of the administrative regime, not convicted criminals,” Iliana told me.

Most of Busmantsi's residents are aged between 30 and 45. Some have stress-related mental health problems. Suicide attempts and hunger strikes are not unusual. “The big problem is that they don't know when they'll be able to leave. In the end they will be sent back to their countries of origin, although some are appealing. At least criminals have guarantees. The maximum period you can be in prison (for normal offenders) awaiting trial is one year, two years in very serious cases,” Iliana told me. “Deportation procedures in the West are faster because they've been doing it for 50 years or more. We're not saying that people shouldn't be deported. It's the law – a policy matter – but you must safeguard basic human rights.” Detainees have little recourse to the courts. Iliana explained: “You can apply for legal aid only if you have a case pending. And in order to reach court you need a lawyer. If you don't have money you can't pay for a lawyer.”

Media coverage of Busmantsi is scant. Iliana attributed this to apathy. “This is a xenophobic country. The government doesn't understand that migration will become a big issue. We have a very negative demographic trend. In just 18 years we lost 1,500,000 Bulgarians, who went to the West to study or find jobs. We need immigrants. It's a matter of necessity, not choice.” She believes that most politicians, not just the extremists of Ataka, view immigrants as a threat and feel obliged to “protect” Bulgaria from outsiders.

Valeria Ilareva from Sofia University's Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants also campaigns against conditions at the centre. She cites the practice of isolating “troublesome” individuals as particularly barbaric. Busmantsi has a building with nine rooms, known to lawyers and inmates as “isolators”. (The authorities prefer to call them “individual cells”, probably because placing non-criminals in solitary confinement for extended periods would be tantamount to an admission of torture). If the authorities decide a detainee has breached internal rules then he is placed in these special units.

“Offenders” are not told how long they'll spend in the isolator. “I have one client who's been in the isolator since 28 May,” Valeria told VAGABOND. He was informed that he'd be released once he'd signed a declaration saying he'd infringed internal rules. However, he denies breaching these rules. He cut himself and wrote a message on the wall with his blood – ‘Where is my freedom?' Now they have told him that he'll only be allowed out when he cleans the wall. This is another grave human rights violation.”

The individual in question, a Chechen, claimed to have been tortured for seven months by special security services in Russia. Now he faces new barbarity at Busmantsi. His case also highlights gross incompetence. He made his asylum application in Bulgaria in November 2006, yet was only interviewed on 31 May of this year – in the isolator itself. People who cross borders illegally to seek asylum are not criminals – even according to the Bulgarian Penal Code – so his treatment seems all the more extraordinary.

Valeria Ilareva from Sofia University's Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants

Valeria Ilareva from Sofia University's Legal Clinic for Refugees and Immigrants

The director of the Busmantsi centre, Danail Dimov, claims that Bulgaria is merely following the example of Belgium and the Netherlands where similar centres were built. “We only accommodate those foreigners for whom there are obstacles either to their expulsion or to leaving the country. The impediments may be different – either they have no money or they may not be telling us their real names. So we have difficulty in finding their true identity.” For Mr Dimov, Busmantsi is very much a last option. “This signing-up measure (at police stations) is the first one we apply to foreigners. So either the individuals in question have breached this procedure or have no money for their tickets home. The detainees here enjoy conditions many Bulgarians lack,” he told me during our interview.

He denies the centre employs rough tactics: “We have regulations here that are valid on the territory of this centre.” Regarding the Chechen inmate, Mr Dimov believes his incarceration justified. “He has not been in the ‘individual cell' all the time. He was taken out but he committed another violation and so was sent back again. He exploits every opportunity to stage dramatic rebellions. He told us one name and then we found papers on him containing a different name. We are waiting for the Russian Embassy to do relevant checks and issue him with travel documents so that he can leave.”

Alerting the Russian Embassy of someone who is actually trying to escape from Russia?

Mr Dimov believes the sparse conditions in isolators are necessary: “We give them a sheet, blanket and mattress, but not a bed because, once they're put there, they sometimes try to hurt themselves on its metal ends,” he told me. “They used to live quite normally with other inmates before they went to that special building. Placing them in those ‘individual cells' is a last resort.” Authorities at Busmantsi claim that inmates placed in individual cells are served with administrative papers listing their contraventions. However, detainees, as well as lawyers, deny this.

You don't have to commit a heinous crime to end up in the isolator. On 21 May several inmates insisted on seeing lawyers from the Migration Directorate. They protested peacefully by not going to their dormitory. So they too were placed in isolators. However, according to Article 1 of the 1984 Convention Against Torture, the infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by officials for the purposes of punishment or intimidation constitutes torture. And that is what seems to be happening in Busmantsi's isolators.

Lawyers maintain that inmates' rights are being violated on many counts. When asylum seekers come to Bulgaria illegally they are issued with a deportation order at the border and then moved to Busmantsi. The law stipulates that asylum seekers should be interviewed within three days. Yet asylum seekers sometimes wait months to be interviewed by the State Agency for Refugees. Meanwhile, active measures are initiated to enforce deportation orders. “Embassies from their countries of origin are contacted, a very dangerous development for genuine asylum seekers, because they have escaped from those countries. So our authorities are endangering lives,” claims the BHC.

Forgotten by the outside world, detainees often succumb to despair

Forgotten by the outside world, detainees often succumb to despair

Sometimes officials from the agency come to interview people only to find they have been deported. How can they get away with this? Valeria explains: “We had an Iraqi asylum seeker persuaded to sign a declaration saying he wanted to return to Iraq, although he has been threatened by Islamist groups there because he worked as a translator for American forces. That's why he came to Bulgaria. They told him he'd be released from Busmantsi if he signed. He thought they meant here in Bulgaria – not released merely to be deported back to Iraq.”

I met another detainee, a 20-year-old Afghan citizen, Djaved Nouri, who had sought asylum in Bulgaria at the beginning of 2004. His father was a general with the ruling political party in Afghanistan. He fled the country together with his uncle and grandfather. In Bulgaria, he was housed at the State Centre for Refugees, where he was allowed freedom of movement between 2004 and 2006. In September last year he had a row with a taxi driver. The police were summoned and he was interviewed by the authorities who declared, without producing any evidence, that he was a threat to national security. He has been at Busmantsi since July of last year and his case has now been postponed to December 2008. Djaved claims also to have been repeatedly beaten by camp guards. He spent 15 days in the isolator after participating in the aforementioned peaceful protest. “I have tried to kill myself. I have also set myself on fire,” he told me.

If there are grounds for optimism, it's that events at Busmantsi are gradually being exposed. “The political umbrella of the Migration Directorate is starting to shrink a bit after the resignation of the Justice Minister who appointed the chief of the Migration Directorate,” Valeria Ilareva told me.

As for Mr Dimov, he seemed amiable enough but his account simply didn't square with those of the detainees. He told me that he regularly shared coffee with some inmates. He also claimed food was provided by a private catering firm that serves top hotels, including the Hilton. Yet Djaved said that he had never even met Mr Dimov, even though he'd been there for a year. Djaved also told me he lived on paltry portions of potatoes, soup and cabbage.

Perhaps the ultimate test of a civilised society is its judicial system. We only have to remember the gruesome tortures perpetrated on the Bulgarian nurses in Libya. The state can be beneficent or benighted in its treatment of detainees. It's up to Bulgaria to show it understands the expectations of EU membership. That means adhering to civilised conditions at all times, not merely giving idle promises to visiting dignitaries.


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