|Children locked in detention centres are allowed to walk in enclosed yards twice each day [Juliana Koleva/Al Jazeera]
"What crime have I committed to be held a prisoner?" "When will they set me free? They are telling me six months, why six months?" "On what grounds are they detaining me? I am a refugee, not a criminal."
Visiting the Liubimets detention centre on the Turkish-Bulgarian border is not for the faint hearted. Within seconds the few outsiders who visit are mobbed by dozens of angry immigrants, all yelling the same question in different languages: "Why are we in prison?"
"We don't know why we are being detained. We haven't seen anybody. Nobody explains what is going on," shouts a Tunisian man in his twenties.
Another, an Algerian in his early thirties, chips in: "I know my rights. Are you [Bulgaria] in the European Union? I know the rules; you don't have the right to put me in a prison."
Bulgaria currently locks up the 1,000 asylum seekers it receives in an average year in two secure units, the Liubimets centre and another in Busmansti, just outside capital city Sofia.
Most are detained for months, something that is against both Bulgaria's national laws and EU regulations.
While Bulgaria is already failing to properly manage its asylum system, many fear the situation could spiral out of control once the country finally joins the border control-free Schengen zone.
On joining, the number of immigrants heading for Bulgaria is expected to rise dramatically, as the many thousands who currently cross illegally into the EU via the Turkish-Greek border may opt instead to slip into Bulgaria en route to the West.
Detention the 'only option'
Government officials acknowledge they are breaking EU rules and national law, but insist they can only properly cater for just 400 asylum seekers at any one time in dedicated, open reception centres.
Nikola Kazakov, director of the State Agency for Refugees, says: "The biggest problem in the Bulgarian system of reception is the low capacity of the open reception centres, so we are forced to keep people who applied for refugee status in closed camps.
"Yes, it's against the minimum standards for reception of asylum seekers but that is the capacity of Bulgaria."
|Eight Afghans caught crossing illegally into Bulgaria via the Turkish border [Bulgarian interior ministry]
Bulgaria's interior ministry has also admitted it is failing to meet even minimum EU standards. In March this year, it published a draft strategy detailing the system's failings, including too few residential places for asylum seekers.
Sofia's bid to join Schengen was postponed in September, after the Netherlands and Finland objected on the grounds both were unable to secure their borders.
Schengen members do not want to see a replica of the situation in Greece where, in 2010 alone, some 41,000 immigrants illegally crossed the Turkish-Greek border in the hope of making it to western Europe.
Officially, asylum cases in Bulgaria should be decided within six months. In practice, applications are subject to frequent delays, extensions and lengthy court appeals.
Trapped in detention centres while application processes drag on, many asylum seekers just want to be released so they can take their chances in Bulgaria or beyond its borders.
To be freed, asylum seekers must sign declarations stating they have secure lodgings and are able to financially support themselves. Many simply invent addresses.
"One of them had filled in the address of the Bulgarian Red Cross, which he saw in a leaflet, and was set free - but then had no place to live," says Linda Auanis, an Iraqi who is chair of the Women's Refugee Council. "Afghan people say they know a flat in Sofia where, according to the declarations, at least 20 people 'live'."
Many are unaware that, by signing these documents, they also permanently waive their rights to any material assistance - including accommodation - from the state, from that point onwards.
A 20-year-old Iranian who declined to give his name said: "I am on the streets for several months now. I eat once every two days, whatever I am thrown. I have lost more than ten kilos. No one has called me for an [asylum application] interview and the procedure is being extended again and again."
Missing 6,000 'in Europe'
|Bulgarian asylum policy
• Immigration set to increase once Bulgaria
joins the border-control free EU Schengen zone
• Immigrants who illegally cross the Greek-
Turkish border in a bid to get to the West may
choose instead to head for Bulgaria
• While 41,000 immigrants crossed into Greece
from Turkey in 2010, Bulgaria is struggling to
cope with 1,000 asylum seekers per year
• By the government’s own admission, Bulgaria
is unable to fulfil the basic standards for
receiving asylum seekers in accordance
with European legal norms
• Asylum seekers are detained in closed
camps, against EU and national law
• Unlike other countries, Bulgaria does not grant
special leave to remain for those asylum seekers
whose asylum claim are rejected but their
country of origin cannot be verified
• During appeals, courts are not obliged to
consider all the circumstances of an application
or to accept new data from asylum seekers
Forced to choose between begging on the streets, working illegally or even stealing, unsurprisingly it appears even those who want to stay in Bulgaria opt to chance their luck in other European countries.
From 2000 until today, around 6,000 of approximately 15,000 applications have been cancelled. Those 6,000 people have disappeared from the system and the Bulgarian authorities have no idea where they are.
"We can presume that those people whose procedures have been cancelled have left for other EU countries," says Iliana Savova, a lawyer working for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organisation.
However, many of those who made it to other countries will have been sent back to Bulgaria, where they must restart their asylum claim or return to their country of origin.
Since 2003, the Dublin Regulation has been in force among all EU nations, enabling countries to return asylum seekers to the first member state in which they applied for refugee status.
The EU has established a European fingerprint database - EURODAC - and member states are obliged to ensure it contains prints and other data for every immigrant to facilitate these returns.
Payam, not his real name, says he was tortured by the police in his home country, Iran, during the state's crackdown on reformists following the disputed 2009 election.
He originally applied for refugee status in Sofia but managed to get to England where he has relatives. Three months later he was sent back to Bulgaria, and now fears his application will be prejudiced because he tried to go to the UK.
Five months since returning to Sofia, his second application for asylum is yet to be formally registered by the authorities. Throughout this time, he has been unable to rent an apartment, draw money from his bank account and he could be sent back to one of the two detention centres at any time.
"This is not a life really; it is hard to bear… I would prefer a prison at home where I was tortured in all kinds of ways," he says.
Bulgaria does not grant special residency terms for claimants who are not deported when their country of origin, and therefore vaildity of their asylum case, cannot be determined.
Unable to repatriate these people, most countries can opt to grant special leave to remain or "status of tolerance" that at least allows applicants to settle and work. Bulgaria has no such legal mechanism and is reluctant to introduce one.
"It may provide a legal status to potentially dangerous persons," explains Dragomir Petrov, director of the Migration Directorate within Bulgaria's interior ministry.
This means many asylum seekers in Bulgaria are trapped in a vicious circle of application, rejection, appeal and reapplication - all the while unable to work, claim benefits, settle or integrate.
Mohammed, an Afghani in his mid-30s, has been in Bulgaria for 12 years. He is still waiting for a final decision on his asylum claim after submitting eight separate applications.
"I cannot, and will not, go back to Afghanistan where my life is in danger. I cannot afford to pay traffickers to get me from Bulgaria to other European countries. I can work illegally here but the authorities are cracking down on bosses employing illegals. What else can I do, steal or be a criminal?" he asks.
On average, around 600 people illegally cross into Bulgaria via the Turkish border each year. The crossings are organised by traffickers operating in Turkey, who are said to charge around €1,000 ($1,380) to show immigrants how and where to cross.
"It's like being at a market, you go and choose your trafficker depending on where in Europe you want to go and how much you can afford to pay," says Farhat, an Afghani in his twenties who crossed into Bulgaria via the Turkish border in 2001.
Most choose to go to Greece, an EU member state that is part of the Schengen zone.
The situation is dire in Greece, where thousands of immigrants, many fleeing violent conflict and extreme poverty in places such as Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq and Libya have poured over the border from Turkey.
|Five Afghans a few hours after illegally crossing
the Greek-Turkish border [Juliana Koleva/Al Jazeera]
Amnesty International, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg have all strongly criticised Athens' policy toward asylum seekers.
"Asylum-seekers and irregular migrants are not criminals. Yet the Greek authorities treat them as such, disregarding their rights under international law. Currently, migrants are detained as a matter of course, without regard to whether such measures are necessary," reads the Amnesty report published in July 2010.
Greece responded to this criticism, acknowledging shortcomings in their system but stressing they had no means to reasonably deal with the sheer numbers of people - 41,000 in 2010 alone - coming over the border.
They also underline that it is an EU-wide problem, as 90 per cent of those illegally entering member states do so via Greece and the Greek-Turkish border, according to FRONTEX, the EU border security mission.
FRONTEX manages operations across the union's borders and has now established a strong presence in Greece, but immigrants still manage to slip through by changing routes and crossing points.
"After we secured control over the land border, the influx moved to the river and in the first quarter of 2011 there were 11,200 illegal immigrants who crossed this way," says Georgios Slamagkas, chief of police in Orestiada, a Greek town that borders both Bulgaria and Turkey.
Few people here believe the patrols will stop the flow of immigrants desperate to get to the West.
Bulgaria the next Greece?
"I have great hopes that Bulgaria's membership of the Schengen zone will reduce the pressure on us," a Greek border guard says, on condition of anonymity.
"We will build a wall along our 12km land border with Turkey, we will strengthen the control along the river and this will redirect the immigrant flow towards Bulgaria."
He then smiles, explaining he often prefers to end his working day tracing the 210km land border between Turkey and Bulgaria on Google maps.
|The 1951 UN Refugee Convention
• Defines a refugee as "a person with a well-
founded fear of being persecuted for reasons
of race, religion, nationality, membership of a
particular social group or political organisation"
• Stipulates refugees should not be returned
to a country where they fear persecution
• Spells out individuals or groups not covered
by the convention, such as war criminals
While this might sound callous, the large numbers of asylum seekers in Greece resulted in entire districts of the capital becoming effectively no-go zones.
Omonia Square is part of the historical centre of Athens and was once a popular hang-out for locals and tourists alike. Today, shops and hotels have been closed down as the area has been effectively taken over by immigrants, many of whom have been forced to squat empty buildings or even sleep out on the streets.
The locals are frightened to go there at night because, they say, the crime rate has dramatically risen. They are also furious because the presence of the immigrants deters tourists from spending time and money in bars, hotels and cafes.
"More and more local businesses and shops have gone bankrupt; at the beginning of the year two of the biggest hotels, each with 150 to 200 rooms, closed their doors because tourists cancel their reservations. The immigrants frighten them off because it is very common to be robbed, crime is getting worse and worse," complains a young Greek who owns a souvenir shop near Omonia Square.
Greeks protest regularly, calling on the authorities to take control of Omonia Square. Athens' mayor, Giorgos Kaminis, recently warned that unless the state intervenes, Omonia Square will turn into a "war zone similar to Beirut during the 1970s".
Traffickers outwit border patrols
Meanwhile, Sofia insists on joining Schengen, claiming anything else would mean Bulgaria was effectively a second class member of the EU club.
However, as long as Bulgaria focuses solely on stopping immigrants crossing its borders, rather than setting up a robust system to properly handle the flow of migrants, it seems inevitable it will fail to stem to tide of would-be refugees heading to the West.
"Previous experience shows that building walls and tighter border controls are not adequate measures for solving the problems of refugees and immigrants - traffickers will simply find other ways to get people to Europe," says Mauro Longo, a film-maker and activist associated with European Alternatives, an organisation based in London which organises conferences, arts festivals and symposia on global refugee issues.
Now is the time for Bulgaria to properly close the gaps in the system, says Lorenzo Marsili, director of European Alternatives, who recommends Sofia quickly implements effective procedures aimed at integrating refugees.
Failing to act will "lead Bulgaria into the same situation as Greece", he warns, something the Bulgarian public is most certainly not prepared for.
Juliana Koleva is a Sofia-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.