Migrants Face Brutality As Bulgaria Recreates The Iron Curtain

The Iron Curtain is back. Topped with barbed wire, monitored by CCTV, patrolled by border guards, it stretches along part of the Bulgarian and Greek frontiers with Turkey. Twenty-five years after the end of communism, the new fortress Europe aims to keep out refugees fleeing the carnage in Syria and Iraq, with sometimes brutal results.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called on the Bulgarian authorities to investigate the deaths in March of two Iraqi men stopped at the Bulgarian border. The men, part of a group from the persecuted Yazidi minority who were fleeing Islamic State, reportedly had their possessions seized and were beaten up. Two later died, apparently of their injuries and hypothermia, on the Turkish side of the frontier. A third was taken to hospital in Edirne in Turkey.

"We know that two people died but we still don't know under what circumstances," says Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Sofia. "Fences are not the solution. Migration flows need to be managed. We are concerned that the use of violence may put people at risk, forcing refugees, including those with small children, to take perilous journeys across the mountains."

Refusing refugees entry, a policy known as "pushback", is in breach of Bulgaria's national and international legal obligations that guarantee the right to ask for asylum. "Bulgaria is an EU member state and has signed the Refugee Convention," says Cheshirkov. "It has to provide refugees with an opportunity to speak to officials and explain why they are fleeing. In order to do that they need access to the territory."

Instead, further restrictions are planned. Keen to join the Schengen Zone of visa-free travel inside the EU, Bulgaria plans to extend the border fence to cover its entire 160km land frontier with Turkey, part of a "containment plan". The strategy is working: in 2013 11,500 people illegally crossed into Bulgaria. In 2014, 40,000 people tried to cross illegally, of whom 6,000 succeeded.

But containment exacts a human cost. Reports by Human Rights Watch in April 2014 on Bulgaria, and by Amnesty International on Greece, include detailed accounts from refugees of being hit repeatedly by border guards, having possessions stolen and being forced back to Turkey.

Abdullah, an Afghan asylum seeker, told of how he was systematically beaten by Bulgarian border guards. "They kept beating my head and my back. First one soldier and then another. I tried to escape but they beat me even more. They even beat me as they were dragging me to the car."

Bulgarian officials reject claims of brutality.

The country is under intense pressure from refugees and illegal immigrants, says foreign ministry spokeswoman Betina Joteva. The government announced a new plan in March for the integration of refugees but needs more financial support from the EU. New border control protocols are needed with Turkey and Greece. "Bulgaria is seriously committed to protecting the EU's external border and we have no intention of failing in this obligation," she says.

The European Commission has written to Bulgaria about the allegations that border guards used violence and "pushback". But new evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch in August and September 2014 indicates that the policy is still in operation.

Human Rights Watch documented three separate incidents of forced return from Bulgaria to Syria, involving at least 43 people, all Syrians, including children. The accounts mirror those of the refugees in the April 2014 reports and accuse Bulgarian border guards of sustained brutality, beatings with batons, fists and boots and forcing asylum seekers to lie face down on the ground. "The European Commission needs to investigate these violations of EU law and put its foot down," says Human Rights Watch's Lydia Gall.

Iraqi Yazidis fleeing to the EU should be treated as refugees, says Natasha Bertaud of the European Commission. "Any measure taken by Bulgaria or any other member states should be in line with applicable procedures of EU and international law." The Commission, says Bertaud, will continue to monitor the situation in Bulgaria.

But as pushback continues, monitoring, say human rights activists, is not enough.