The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is concerned about the aftermath of the Harmanli scandal in the Bulgarian town of the same name. UNHCR spokesman William Spindler urged the Bulgarian government not to deport asylum seekers on national security grounds just because of a protest. Instead, the authorities should decongest the Harmanli refugee camp, improve the living conditions and work with the refugees and local communities, to ease tensions, Spindler said in his statement.
He stated, concerns about the conditions and overcrowding had not been addressed by the Bulgarian government, but these aspects had fueled the frustration and tensions among residents. The camp was “seriously overcrowded, since it is hosting 3,100 asylum seekers, of whom one third are children, when its official capacity is 2,710.” Also, the sanitary conditions were concerning, the UNHCR official said. There was intermittent warm water supply only.
According to this U.N. organization, there are also “serious challenges” on provision of medical care, including a lack of medicine. In addition, Spindler criticized the absence of any recreational facilities or activities for children or adults.
He also mentioned other so-called “reception centers” and detention facilities in Bulgaria. The temporary detention facility of Elhovo was occupied at nearly 130% of its capacity, in deplorable conditions, Spindler said. “While UNHCR does not in principle object to the return of people who have not been granted international protection,” he added, “such returns should only take place if all procedural guarantees are fully respected, including access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure and to effective judicial review.”
It is not the first time the United Nations criticize Bulgaria for its treatment of refugees. But, in this case, the concern was transported in a far more polite way, compared to last time.
At the Harmanli refugee camp, hundreds of asylum seekers had staged a partially violent protest, after the authorities had given in to demands of xenophobic groups, along with residents, to lock the refugee center, a move which effectively confined the refugees. The authorities had cited medical reasons, while experts had denied there were any.
Photo by UNHCR