Impact of government measures related to COVID-19 on third-country nationals in Bulgaria
The Bulgarian government announced a state of emergency on 13 March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lasting at least until 13 May 2020. Besides measures that apply to the entire population, the government has announced a series of measures directed at foreigners in the country. All pending administrative procedures are currently suspended, including those which relate to migrants and refugees. All administrative processes will be postponed by one month after the end of the state of emergency.
The official national information portal on COVID-19 is only available in Bulgarian and does not have a dedicated section that advises foreigners. For example, the section ‘I am’ provides numerous options for website visitors to select based on their circumstances, but there is no option directed at foreigners seeking information. The official information hotline for patients with a chronic illness is also provided only in Bulgarian.
The State Agency for Refugees (SAR) regularly organises information sessions on COVID-19 symptoms and prevention for asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection who live in the agency’s reception centres.
The Bulgarian Red Cross (BRC) has opened an information hotline for measures and actions during the COVID-19 situation, as well as for information on possible support from the BRC. The phoneline is open daily from 10:00 to 22:00 and provides assistance in Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Turkish, English and French.
IOM Bulgaria offers consultations through Facebook and by phone in Farsi, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish, English and Bulgarian. They are available Monday to Friday from 9:30 to 18:00.
To support children aged 6 to 11, the IASC Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings created the book My Hero Is You. It is available in more than 40 languages and was translated into Bulgarian by UNICEF.
Governmental Order RD-01-183 temporarily prohibits entry into Bulgaria of all third-country nationals, but this ban does not apply to family members of Bulgarian citizens, persons with permanent or long-term residence status in Bulgaria and their family members, among other categories of individuals.
Transit through Bulgaria to another country is allowed for third-country nationals who have a long-term residence permit in another EU Member State or in the Schengen area, as well as their family members, if they are returning to their country of residence. Citizens of Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey can also transit through Bulgaria with the aim of returning to their country of origin. Transit is allowed only in cases when immediate departure from Bulgaria can be guaranteed. Those transiting should inform their diplomatic or consular mission in advance.
Residence permits and identity documents
The validity of identity documents (such as ID cards, passports, driver’s licenses) of foreigners with a long-term residence permit, family members of Bulgarian citizens and family members of EU citizens has been extended by 6 months. However, there is no corresponding provision for beneficiaries of international protection, which leaves them in a legal vacuum.
Foreigners with a long-term residence permit in Bulgaria which expires during the state of emergency can file a renewal application 14 days after the end of the state of emergency. In this case, the state of emergency is not considered to be a gap in status when the foreigner applies for a permanent residence permit.
Newly arrived asylum seekers’ applications have been registered. This allows them to have access to the reception centres of the State Agency for Refugees (SAR) and begin the process for obtaining international protection.
All procedural actions on applications for international protection that require in-person participation of asylum seekers or their legal representatives have been suspended. Newly arrived asylum seekers are quarantined for a period of 14 days with active monitoring of their health.
In addition, all SAR reception centres have been put into quarantine. External visitors are not allowed, and asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection are forbidden to leave. The SAR has suspended procedures under the Dublin Regulation.
All refugee resettlement procedures have been suspended and are not expected to continue until the end of the state of emergency.
Stateless status procedures
During the state of emergency, the application procedures for stateless status have been suspended.
Registration of documents and administration of interviews for acquiring, restoring or renouncing Bulgarian citizenship have been suspended.
Education and training
Classes and extracurricular activities in schools, universities and other educational institutions and organisations have been suspended, with distance learning introduced where possible. Access to education has been challenging for many asylum-seeking and refugee children, as they do not have tablets or laptops. The State Agency for Refugees has organised continuation of their education in a non-digital format. There are efforts to provide tablets and laptops to support these children and prevent dropout.
Adult language classes provided by NGOs, such as the Bulgarian Red Cross, Caritas Sofia and IOM, have been successfully organised online and have high attendance rates. Social orientation classes provided by Caritas Sofia have also started online.
Many foreigners who have lost their job and are eligible to receive state unemployment support face a barrier: unemployment support can only be provided via bank transfer, but many foreigners, especially asylum seekers who have access to the labour market, are not able to open a bank account due to strict requirements intended to address money laundering and terrorism. This seems to be a significant obstacle to benefiting from state support programmes.
NGOs report that some asylum seekers, beneficiaries of international protection and stateless people with an irregular status are working in the ‘grey economy’ without a contract. Many of them were employed in the food industry, especially restaurants, and have lost their job. Their status leaves them vulnerable and at risk of homelessness.
The State Agency for Refugees (SAR) has offered accommodation in its reception centres for beneficiaries of international protection who are no longer entitled to live there but are at risk of homelessness due to the COVID-19 crisis. The SAR also provides food.
All service providers, such as the Bulgarian Red Cross, Caritas Sofia, IOM, Council of Refugee Women and Mission Wings, have continued their work with migrants and refugees, mostly via phone and internet. They have been providing information on COVID-19 prevention, as well as the latest news and measures adopted by the government.
These NGOs report that about 200 families have sought their support because they have lost their jobs. Some cannot pay their rent and are at high risk of homelessness. The Bulgarian Red Cross has offered to pay their rent for one month and buy food. The Council of Refugee Women has offered weekly support for food.
Detention and deportation
All deportations of irregular migrants have been suspended. New detainees are placed in quarantine for 14 days without access to a lawyer during this period. Legal proceedings before courts are on hold, including proceedings regarding ‘coercive measures’.
Leading NGOs called on the Supreme Administrative Court and the Administrative Courts in Sofia and Haskovo to hear cases related to coercive administrative measures under the Law for Foreigners, especially cases challenging the legality of orders for (continuation of) detention.
However, they received a negative reply on the basis that administrative detention of foreigners is based on the Law for Foreigners rather than the Code of Criminal Procedure. These complaints therefore fall outside the list of exceptions to the suspension of legal proceedings. The heads of administrative courts believe that the issue should be resolved by the legislature.