Do We Have a Quota on Humaneness?

| Iliana Savova,

On May 12 of this year, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov announced that Bulgaria was prepared to accept between two and four refugees from Northern Africa. Bulgaria would do this as a sign of solidarity with Italy, which faces serious problems in dealing with a significant influx of refugees from Libya and Tunis as a result of the events in Northern Africa at the beginning of the year.

Tsvetanov made this declaration after participating in a special session of the Council of Ministers in the field of Justice and Home Affairs in Brussels, where participants discussed increased migration and eventual changes to the Schengen Agreement that would grant the right to temporarily restore border control within the Schengen Area of the European Union.   

This announcement raises at least two questions – how will accepting “two to four refugees” help Italy, where those seeking asylum from Northern Africa number in the tens of thousands, and under what conditions will we receive and take care of these people during their resettlement from Italy to Bulgaria, given that the conditions for receiving asylum seekers in our country do not correspond to a single European standard or directive?

These questions, of course, are valid in the event that the minister of the interior did not have in mind a quota for access to our territory and a procedure for those seeking asylum who submit a request at Bulgaria’s national borders. If this is the case, then the questions should be replaced by a strict rebuke and a reminder that repeating the old mistakes of previous governments who refused the right to unhindered and unconditional asylum and refuge in Bulgaria seriously discredits the government’s attempt to create an image of our country as a democratic and law-governed state that respects human rights and international norms.

If we assume that Minister Tsvetanov had in mind the resettlement of refugees, we find ourselves facing other, no less serious objections.

Resettlement is an act of statesmanship, a gesture of humaneness in its purest form. With it, our government takes on the responsibility of ensuring the reception of people on our territory who have been recognized as refugees in other countries, which cannot, however, guarantee the refugees the necessary minimum of care and personal security. These are typically countries bordering on states in which there are military conflicts, civil wars or other humanitarian crises and which must cope with a stream of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people fleeing death, hunger and destruction. Most often in such cases, the countries are from Africa or the Middle East, and sometimes they themselves are in need of humanitarian help and support for their own populations. For this reason, resettlement is both help for the refugees, as well as help for the country from which resettlement is taking place.

Whether Italy is such a country and to what extent it should be required to nevertheless try to fulfill its international obligations before starting to complain is an interesting, albeit different question. It reopens old disputes about the principles upon which the solidarity between the states of the European Union are founded in the sphere of asylum, and revives arguments about how to distribute – or more precisely how not to distribute – the burden between them. France and Belgium’s readiness to repeal one of the EU’s greatest achievements – the free movement of people within the borders of the Schengen Area – in order to stop the flow of refugees seeking asylum from Italy is a particularly striking example of this long-standing problem.

More interesting, however, are the Bulgarian Interior Ministry’s motives for suggesting resettlement, as well as the selected number. In Bulgaria, the conditions for accepting asylum seekers fail to meet any standards whatsoever. By means of a regulation [1], the State Agency for Refugees for years has “legalized” its inability to secure shelter and housing even for people who submit their first request for asylum in Bulgaria. Instead, they “place” them in administrative centers for detaining illegal migrants (known in Bulgarian as “Special Houses for the Temporary Placement of Foreigners” or SHTPF) in Busmantsi and Lyubimets. As a result of this illegal practice, even pregnant women, disabled people and families with underage children are being held in a SHTPF, where their detention lasts for an average of between two and five weeks. Most of them, misled into thinking that giving a fictional address will lead to a faster release, literally end up on the street after being released from the SHTPF. Social assistance for asylum seekers in Bulgaria is 65 (sixty-five) leva per person per month; refugees are expected to be able to meet all their needs for food, clothing and medicine with this amount. The National Program for the Integration of Refugees for 2011-2013, which was adopted in January, stipulates a package of measures, whose realization has been put off until some unknown point in the future, however, since most of the measures are supposed to be financed by the European Refugee Fund. The fund, however, has been frozen for more than 16 months, while the financing received from it for 2009 must be returned to the European Commission due to a complete failure to absorb it. And finally, during 2010, the regional prosecutors from the border regions with Turkey and Greece began a campaign to begin criminal proceedings against asylum seekers on the basis of their illegal entry into the territory of Bulgaria, even when their requests for asylum were already submitted and registered. This on-going practice is in direct violation of Art. 279, para. 5 of the Criminal Code and Art. 31 of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. When you take into account the rule of decriminalizing illegal entry into the country when it is done for the purpose of exercising one’s right to asylum, clearly the goal of this practice is nothing more than an artificial increase in effective prosecutions and the number of convictions.

Against the backdrop of this unpleasant, but alas, rather consistent picture, Minister Tsvetanov’s announcement cannot be interpreted as anything but putting on a show put in order to court certain member-states so they will support Bulgaria’s entry into Schengen. In this context, the suggested number of four people does not look puzzling or ridiculous, but downright lofty, when you keep in mind the pitiful state of our national system for asylum and the currently dismal prospects for its improvement any time in the near future. This gloomy outlook is determined by the priorities of the current government and leadership, for whom the construction of physical and institutional barriers along our borders takes precedence over the construction of housing centers; convicting refugees takes precedence over the right of access to court proceedings and asylum, which is guaranteed to them by international law; while empty political demagoguery dominates over the defense of human rights and basic moral values like humanity, tolerance and empathy for the underprivileged. 

They ways things are headed, it won’t be any wonder if in the near future quotas for humaneness are also adopted, which the powers-that-be here will be inclined to offer to a neighbor… with the obvious goal of keeping both tunics for themselves.

 


[1] Act for Responsibility and Coordination of State Bodies, adopted with the Decree of the Council of Ministers No. 332 from 28 December 2007, promulgated in the State Gazette, issue 3 from 11 January 2008. [back]