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“You are not welcome here” or hospitality Bulgarian style* : NGOs and media challenge the Government policy toward migrants (September 2013)

Migrant rights

In a press release dated September 27th 2013 Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) (human rights protection) requested the resignation of the governing body of the State Agency of the Refugees. The request is based on the findings made by BHC representatives from their visit in the newly established centre for accommodation of refugees near the city of Sofia. The centre was opened on September 18th 2013 in the building of a former boarding-school. The lack of sufficient information about the conditions for accommodation in the centre was used, according BHC, by unscrupulous media and political representatives for provoking tension in the community and for incite of prejudices against the Syrian refugees, which are generalised as people spreading infections, crimes and terrorism.

Further on, BHC describes the conditions for accommodation of the refugees in the centre, expressing their indignation at the miserable living conditions: a ruined building abandoned for decades, without heating, with broken and unclean windows, mold, toilet compartments without hot water, and some of them without any water, without electricity on some of the stories, sewage not working, one blanket only available for three people, complete lack of personnel, medical care and medicines and the most important – missing food.
BHC furthermore reports that since their accommodation on September 18th 2013 the refugees had been supplied food only twice, as both supplies had come from the Bulgarian Red Cross or from private donations from the Syrian community in Bulgaria, non-governmental and charity organisations and private persons. By the date of the visit no one had been granted registration as a person seeking protection and a temporary identity document allowing access to medical care and social aid.

According to BHC “ … such treatment of refugees is not only a typical example of the habitual for our state institutions bureaucracy and indifference to the needs of people but also constitutes inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 4 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union) and display of bureaucratic inhumanity of the highest degree.

The excuses of the governing body of the State Agency for Refugees that it has proved unprepared for the increasing number of refugees are unacceptable. We first of all consider that five thousand people a year can in no way be described as a “mass influx” of refugees, especially compared to Syria’s neighboring countries, where the number of people in each one of them exceeds half a million, or other European countries such as Hungary, which accepted at the beginning of the year more than 15 000 refugees. Moreover, by the end of 2010 both UNHCR and non-governmental organizations supporting refugees regularly warn the government and in particular – the management of the State Agency for Refugees of the deterioration of the crisis in Syria and the expected increase in refugee flow and appealed for prompt increase of the accommodation capacity.”

Finally, BHC calls the State Agency for Refugees to admit its failure to perform its statutory duties and immediately to resign.

Freedom of expression (Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union)

As a reaction to the dismissal of two prominent Bulgarian journalists from the Bulgarian section of Deutsche Welle (DW) radio station BHC sent an open letter with which the organisation expressed its deep concerns about infringement of the right of freedom of expression in Bulgaria. Describing the background in which the dismissal of the two journalists took place, BHC stated that “this decision has been made under pressure on the part of Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB). The latter is being connected with the ownership of a range of Bulgarian media where the freedom of speech is seriously infringed. Yesterday the Mediapool website published the body of the letter sent by CCB to Deutsche Welle. The letter clearly shows the bank requiring a media to abstain from writing on CCB, basing this on suspicious ‘facts’ and threatening the media with the possible consequences, should it not stop writing about the bank.”

Furthermore, BHC recalls that DW initially did not even acknowledge the existence of such a letter and subsequently gave arguments of its decision for dismissal related to non-fulfilment of the DW professional standards on the part of the two journalists without however specifying which were the journalists’ articles infringing the standards and exactly which standards had been violated.

Calling for reassessment of the DW’s decision, BHC reveals serious deficiencies in the DW’s justification of the decision:

“On the one hand, in their letter DW say that “the reason for the inspection was a letter from the Corporate Commercial Bank, in which the bank criticised the Bulgarian editorial’s publications on the Chairperson of the Supervisory board for being one-sided. Deutsche Welle looked into this criticism and found that in its essence it is not well-founded.” Here lies a contradiction – if the criticism is not well-founded, then the materials in question were not one-sided. What standards were then breached against, if the materials were objective?

In their letter DW state that “this decision was made independently of the letter from the bank. Such decisions are made whenever the regular quality inspections at DW establish any of the said breaches of professional conduct.” Here lies yet another contradiction – if the decision was made as part of the regular quality inspection, what kind of inspection is this, what is the procedure, when was the previous inspection, and why did it fail to identify the (beginning of) “breaches of professional conduct”, and why did it fail to administer an initial and smaller penalty, so as to ensure a preventative effect in the context of gradation in penalties. A controlling process, which starts straight with a sacking, is highly suspicious.”

Finally, BHC asks DW to conduct and publish an investigation on the media reality in Bulgaria and to give explanation of the case which may well be regarded as one of censorship imposed by a private entity.

Police and human rights

BHC presented their submissions into the proposed amendments in the Ministry of Interior Act. BHC alerted of significant shortcomings in the prospective amendments. First of all, the new provisions are intended to widen the cases in which the police officers would be entitled of using force and firearms thus disregarding the already adopted ‘absolute necessity’ standard for use of force and firearms.

BHC criticises also the provision of compulsory collection of DNA samples from every person subjected to police registration.

Finally, BHC found some reforms to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights:
“Another novelty in the proposed amendment concerns the police authority to use firearms against a person trying to flee, being beforehand arrested for the commission of crime prosecuted ex officio, including crime of a nonviolent nature. According to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) the use of firearms by the police is only permissible when the person threatens the life or health of others or has committed a violent crime, i.e. a crime involving threat or damage caused on other person’s health or life. ECHR has already found in a number of judgements against Bulgaria that the fundamental right to life as guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights precludes the police from using firearms against persons suspected of commission of nonviolent crimes when they do not behave violently. The proposed amendment however is about to make this vicious practise a law.”

Child rights. Social security and protection

In September National Network for Children (NNC) (advocacy for and promotion of the child rights as guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 24 of the Chapter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union) continued to actively promote the child rights by submitting statements and opinions on various state policies and measures towards children and families.

In a statement dated September 25th the NNC expresses their support to the proposed reform in the model for financing of the social services for elderly people and people with disabilities. The private social service providers should not be excluded from policies and services process regulation as their acquired experience contribute to plan and appraise the needs and to define standards, services and polices NNC states.

NNC joined an open letter addressed to the President of Republic of Bulgaria, the Minister of Youth and the Minister of Culture in relation to the proposed amendments in the Youth Act. The associations undersigned the open letter state that the volunteering should be regulated as a matter of separate act which has to provide thorough and consistent regulation in this sphere. They also suggest that the activities of public service comprising the ‘youth volunteering’ should not be subject to exhaustive listing in the law as such an approach may lead the administration not to acknowledge as volunteering activities which are not listed in the law. They further comment the status of the so called National Youth Organisations and National Youth Representation stressing that political parties’ youth affiliates should not be allowed access to public funds. They criticise the restrictive approach to the so called ‘representative associations’ which shall only be granted leave to participate in the decision making process thus excluding the possibility for wider civil participation in this process.

In a statement dated September 26th, the NNC urges the introduction of a real family income taxation where the tax concessions to be bound with the number of children in the family. They also propose a number of measures in the employment, retirement and social policies aiming at encouragement of births.

NNC gave support to the draft of National Healthcare Strategy for the period 2014 – 2020, noting however that part of the measures it provides are of a general nature without specific time frameworks and particular activities and expressing their believe that the proposed Action plan shall remedy those deficiencies.

In September 2013 NNC continued to participate actively in process of elaboration of three Operative Programs and the Partnership Agreement between Bulgaria and the EU for the next program period (2014 – 2020).

Property rights and economic freedom

In September 2013 the Institute for Market Economics (IME) (the first and oldest independent economic policy think tank in Bulgaria elaborating and advocating market-based solutions) presented the International Property Rights Index (IPRI), which measures the degree of protection of the intellectual and the tangible property in 131 countries worldwide representing 98% of the world GDP and 93% of the population of the Earth. IME was among the 74 associations which contributed to the elaboration of the IPRI 2013. The IPRI, which reviews the political and judicial environment, physical property rights and intellectual property rights, focuses on how the property rights protection influences the economic welfare of the countries. It also reveals that the higher degree of protection of the property rights entails higher GDP per capita, more direct foreign investments and higher growth of the economy.

Bulgaria took 58th place with result of 5.5 points out of 10 points thus sharing its position with Turkey, India, Ghana and China and shows a slight increase compared to 2012.

Access to information

On September 28th the Access to Information Programme (AIP) (facilitates the enjoyment of the right of the citizens to access to information as enshrined in article 41 of the Bulgarian Constitution) (Article 11 of the Chapter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union) bestowed for 11th year its annual awards for contribution to the freedom of information on occasion of the International Day of the Right to Know. The awards were bestowed in six categories. The award for institution which organises best the access to public information was granted to the Technical Control Inspectorate to the Ministry of Agriculture. An anti-award for worst performance of its duties under the Access to Public Information Act was granted to the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Bulgaria for the deterioration in the practices for granting access to the minutes of the deliberations on the sessions of the Government.

Rights of the people with disabilities

The Center for Independent Living (a watchdog NGO promoting the rights of the people with disabilities) announced that on September 23rd in Sofia for the second consecutive year march for the independence of people with disabilities had been held. This time the demands were for change in legislation related to the people with disabilities in Bulgaria. The Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs had been invited to meet with protesters which had prepared for them a list with their demands and proposals for amendments, and worrying data of Eurostat about the state of the Bulgarians with disabilities accompanied with analysis by the CIL team.

“It was not much of a surprise to us that this year the state men did not find courage and time to come to meet the protesters with disabilities. Rather we insisted to be allowed into the building of the Council of Ministers and handed over our letter to Mrs. Sonia Bozhilova, Head of the Reception of the Council of Ministers, who was assigned that task.” CIL reported.

* Capital weekly (online version), 13 September 2013:

http://www.capital.bg/politika_i_ikonomika/bulgaria/2013/09/13/2140219_ne_ste_dobre_doshli/

http://www.capital.bg/politika_i_ikonomika/redakcionni_komentari/2013/09/13/2140371_gostopriemstvo_bulgeriun_stail/

Logo funduszy szwajcarskich, Ecorys oraz Euroregion Bałtyk.       

This text is a result of a research prepared within the project “Powerful Watchdogs” supported by a grant from Switzerland through the Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union. The report aims to show the up-to-date information regarding activity of watchdog organizations in a given country. The author refers to the classification on watchdog functions, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the international concepts of the transparent governance.

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