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By Radostina Pavlova

Amendments of the Law on the Asylum and Refugees (LAR), published in the State Gazette on 16.10.2015, grant the State Agency for the Refugees (SAR) the power to place asylum seekers in closed centres. Currently, the Registration and Reception Centres (RCC), managed by the SAR, have an open regime of entry and exit. The new law also enables the Chair of the SAR to determine zones on the territory of the country, which asylum seekers may not leave without permission.

At the moment, there are six open camps (RCC) functioning on the territory of the country: three in the region of Sofia (in the neighbourhoods of Vrazhdebna, Voenna Rampa and Ovcha Kupel) and one in each of the village of Banya near Nova Zagora, the village of Pastrogor and the town of Harmanli. The centre in Harmanli is the largest, with a capacity of 2710 places. The total capacity of the six centres is 5130 places. According to the SAR, as of the end of September, 2015, the centres were full to just about 50% of their total capacity. This is not due to a decrease in the flow of people, seeking asylum in Bulgaria, as their number from the beginning of the year up to the end of August, nearly 11,500, according to the SAR, exceeds significantly the number for the corresponding periods in previous years; it is, rather, the result of the trend of more and more of the registered asylum seekers, placed in the open centres, to leave Bulgaria before the completion of their asylum procedures.

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The bill introducing these restrictions of the freedom of movement of asylum seekers in Bulgaria transposes into Bulgarian legislation two European directives: Directive 2011/95/EU on standards for the qualification of third-country nationals or stateless persons as beneficiaries of international protection (the Qualification Directive) and Directive 2013/33/EU laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection (the Reception Conditions Directive). According to the provisions of EU law, which Bulgaria must respect, the fact that a person has asked for international protection is not sufficient grounds for restricting his or her freedom and placing him or her in a closed centre. On the other hand, the Reception Conditions Directive allows the detention of asylum seekers, but only when this is necessary as a measure of last resort in exceptional circumstances, while providing a number of legal guarantees of the rights of the detainee. It is also allowed to create zones of movement as the newly adopted Bulgarian law does, but this is only a possibility, not a requirement. Similarly, EU law allows, but does not require the detention of asylum seekers in closed centres. EU Member States are always free to provide more favourable reception conditions to asylum seekers than the minimum standards set by European law.

Even though the adopted provisions do not, on their face, contradict the requirements of EU law, there is a risk for them to be applied arbitrarily by the state authorities wanting to have control over the asylum seekers in Bulgaria. For example, the decision that it is in the interest of public order for somebody to be placed in a closed centre as a matter of prevention – i.e., when he or she has not committed an infraction of public order – is left entirely to the discretion of the respective official. These broad discretionary powers represent a serious risk factor for corruption. Regarding zones of movement, their introduction in a relatively small country like Bulgaria, which, unlike Germany, has a centralized model of government, and in which economic opportunities are concentrated in several big cities, appears unjustified, especially considering that the same bill aims at helping asylum seekers participate in the labour market by giving them the right to work after three months from the beginning of their asylum procedure.

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