Refugees crossing into Europe tell of abuse at hands of Bulgarian police

Published: 13th November 2015

Refugees and migrants arriving in Europe through Bulgaria are claiming to have been abused by the country’s law enforcement officials. A survey of over 100 people conducted by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights revealed alleged incidents of abuse both at the Serbian-Bulgarian border and at holding centers in Bulgaria. The survey was funded by Oxfam and released today.

The people interviewed, most of them from Afghanistan as well as Syria and Iraq, tell of extortion, robbery, physical violence, threats of deportation and police dog attacks. The majority of these alleged abuses took place in border areas, particularly that with Turkey. All interviewees, except those who had not had any contact with the police, reported ill-treatment in Bulgaria.

Accounts of abuses in Bulgaria include:

  • A group of around 10 interviewees witnessed a police officer holding a gun to a refugee’s forehead, while others lay on the ground, apparently unconscious. Frightened by the situation, they fled and tried to hide. Police caught up with the group, beat them, took their valuables, food and water. Later, close to the Serbian border, police officers released dogs on them, and gun shots were heard. Seven people from the group went missing and they have not had contact with them since.
  • Two Afghan men stated that police officers had shot at them to prevent their escape, wounding two.
  • A large group of minors testified to having been intercepted by six Bulgarian police officers who threatened them with guns and dogs to force them back behind the Turkish border. While 17 refugees from their group managed to escape, 15 were detained and one was shot in the leg. 
  • An Afghan man in his twenties spoke of having been pistol-whipped by police. 

The interviews were conducted in the Serbian border town of Dimitrovgrad where up to 200 people cross the border from Bulgaria every day.

Similar accounts from refugees and migrants travelling through Bulgaria have been confirmed by other human rights organizations, such as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Sofia.

Oxfam and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights are calling on the Bulgarian authorities to investigate these abuse allegations and to ensure that officials respect refugees’ human rights in their border operations. 

Nikolina Milic of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights said: "People arriving in Serbia have been sharing with us these terrible accounts of abuse they have been experiencing in Bulgaria over the last 5 months. This report will alert the world to what seems to be happening in Bulgaria on a daily basis. The dramatic and shocking ill-treatment of people fleeing conflict and poverty is totally unacceptable, particularly in an EU member state. We are calling for an independent investigation into the incidents in Bulgaria, and we call on the Bulgarian government to condemn these human rights abuses in the strongest terms possible."

Stefano Baldini, Oxfam Director for South East Europe (including Serbia) who commissioned the report, said: "Refugees arriving in Europe must be treated with respect, and they have the right to protection. They should not have to experience brutality and xenophobia. These testimonies present a consistent picture of alleged incidents in Bulgaria. In light of the reported abuses, the European Union has to intervene and take concrete action to protect basic human rights within its borders."

Migrants and refugees arriving in Europe face uncertainty and many practical difficulties, from the lack of basic information about aid points and available services to the risks posed by human trafficking and migrant smuggling. 

Oxfam's program provides information to refugees on what they are entitled to and where to go for help, as well as advocacy work to protect the rights of people on the move. By interacting closely with local authorities, as well as monitoring them, Oxfam provides support to migrants and refugees, shores up local organizations providing assistance, and works to guarantee the protection these people need. 

Notes to editors

1. Download the report

2. Photographs and video of people arriving in Dimitrovgrad this month are available to download and use with this story:

Please credit all photos and video to Pablo Tosco / Oxfam Intermón

3. The interviews were conducted with around twenty groups consisting of approximately 110 refugees in total. Their countries of origin include Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Refugees from Afghanistan were mostly of Pashto origin and refugees from Syria and Iraq were of Kurdish origin. 

The allegations are largely consistent and include extortion, robbing, physical violence, use of weapons, threats of deportation, and police dog attacks. The majority of these incidents happened in border areas, mainly at the border with Turkey, where many refugees experienced shootings and dog attacks. Refugees stated that Bulgarian police forced them to give up their valuables in order to not be detained for their illegal presence in the country.

Several of them also spent some time in closed asylum centers near Sofia, Vrazhdebna or Busmantsi, and reported having been abused by the police and the centers' management. Similar incidents occurred likewise at the border with Serbia, but to a lesser extent. 

3. The Belgrade Center for Human Rights has the following recommendations for the Bulgarian authorities:

  • The Bulgarian authorities should conduct a proper and independent investigation concerning refugees' allegations of ill-treatment at the hands of Bulgarian law enforcement personnel. 
  • The Bulgarian authorities should publicly condemn the alleged acts of ill-treatment of refugees and other categories of migrants and should emphasize that these cases will be properly investigated and sanctions taken where necessary
  • The Bulgarian Ombudsman should be more involved in the monitoring of the status of refugees and other categories of migrants in Bulgaria. 
  • The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture should increase its presence in the border zones, as well as in the asylum and detention centres, to enable refugees and other categories of migrants to report cases of ill-treatment. 
  • The capacity of civil society organizations providing free legal aid to refugees and other categories of migrants should be further strengthened, including an increased presence in the border zones (border monitoring), so that refugees and other categories of migrants have access to proper counselling and representation in the event of ill-treatment occurring. 

4. The situation in the Western Balkan route:

  • According to UNHCR data, since the beginning of 2015 more than 792,883 people have tried to reach Europe through various routes (the Mediterranean route and the Western Balkan route), and more than 3,440 people have lost their life during the journey.
  • Onward movements through the Western Balkans continued, with average daily arrivals of almost 7,000 in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and 9,000 in Serbia. 
  • Initial figures given by UNHCR in Serbia indicate that the number of refugee families with children has increased significantly. While children constituted only 27% of asylum-seekers in September, their share rose to 40% in October. 
  • The latest information from NHCR in Serbia shows that  93.5% of claimants originated from refugee-producing countries: While the share of Syrian applicants fell from 62% to 53.5% that of Afghans increased from 22% to 29.6%. 
  • The winter is coming and the shelters and refugees are not enough prepared, there is need of winterization kits in order to support the refugees during their journey.  Oxfam expects that refugees’ needs will increase in terms of food, drinking water, shelter, hygiene and winterization items.

5. In addition to its protection program, Oxfam is also installing toilets and water points and will be distributing hygiene and sanitary packs, as well as socks, coats and blankets to about 100,000 people in Serbia and in Macedonia. With winter approaching in the Balkans, refugees not only face freezing temperatures, but food and water shortages and poor sanitation. The Serbian government and NGOs on the ground are warning that the situation will only get worse in the coming months: heavy snow will make the journey harder and yet more dangerous, potentially stranding people who are unable to continue.


Contact information

For the Belgrade Center for Human Rights: 

Nikolina Milic  | | mobile +381648246511.

To contact Oxfam's team in Serbia:

Mariateresa Alvino | | Oxfam Italia | mobile +39 348 9803541 


Lejla Čamo │ | Tel: + 387 (0)33 552 236

For further information from Oxfam in UK:

Attila Kulcsar | | +447471 142974 | @attilalondon

For updates, please follow @Oxfam.