Since Bulgaria ratified both the 1954 and the 1961 Statelessness Conventions in 2012, it has made significant progress in its treatment of stateless people. The changes follow sustained efforts by UNHCR and civil society organisations, including through the joint work between FAR and the European Network on Statelessness as part of our general collaboration and specific initiatives like the #LockedInLimbo campaign and #StatelessnessINDEX.
Major improvements in a short space of time
The first significant change came in December 2016, when the Bulgarian Parliament approved legislation to introduce a statelessness determination procedure (SDP). The introduction of a procedure was a welcome first step, however the qualification criteria threshold was set too high and the new law didn’t guarantee recognised stateless people protection status, access to rights or legal residence. Nevertheless, after concerted push for a change, in 2019, further progress was made on two fronts. Firstly, in April 2019, Bulgaria amended the law to provide for the right to a ‘continuous’ residence permit (for a renewable period of up to one year) for holders of stateless status (the change entered into force on 24 October 2019). This gave recognised stateless people the right to legally reside in Bulgaria, protecting them from being treated as undocumented migrants and facing the risk of detention. Though, the residence permit still falls short of providing access to the labour market, social assistance and health insurance under the national health fund, leaving stateless people disadvantaged.
Second welcome change, was limiting the exclusion of irregularly staying stateless people from access to the statelessness determination procedure (SDP). Before last year’s amendments, the Bulgarian law allowed for a refusal of statelessness status to be issued to individuals who have entered or resided in the country irregularly. Since the amendments, irregular entry and stay can no longer be a ground for exclusion on its own, if the applicant falls within the definition of a stateless person. The benefits of this change can already be seen in the practice of the courts in Bulgaria. For example, in the case of the stateless doctor from Kuwait, Sager Al-Anezi, whose story was highlighted on this blog following a joint campaign by FAR and ENS for his release from detention, the Sofia City Administrative Court ruled in November 2019 that the Migration Directorate could no longer invoke irregular entry and stay in order to refuse his stateless status.
Further good news came in October 2019 from the UN High Level Segment on Statelessness where Bulgaria pledged to lift its reservation to Article 31 (expulsion) of the 1954 Convention and to look into the possibility of withdrawing other reservations, including Articles 21 (housing), 23 (public relief) 24(1)(b) (social security) and Article 24(2) (right to compensation for the death of stateless person, resulting from employment injury or occupational disease). Reviewing and lifting these reservations would bring stateless people one step closer to equal opportunities in life in Bulgaria, if also accompanied by access to the labour market upon being granted a ‘continuous’ residence permit.
Protection gaps remain
Despite these positive developments, the SDP in Bulgaria is far from perfect and there are fundamental flaws in its practical application that need fixing as a matter of priority. First of all, the Migration Directorate continues its practice of discontinuing the statelessness determination procedure, instead of refusing stateless status on the substance of the application. The discontinuation of the SDP is usually justified by the applicant’s inability to present a document within an extremely short period of time (usually three days). This weakens the effectiveness of remedies for applicants, because, even if they win the court case, the court can only oblige the Migration Directorate to continue the procedure, but not to recognise stateless status.
Secondly, irregularly staying stateless people continue to be at risk of being detained when they present to the authorities to submit their statelessness application. Unlike in the asylum procedure, there is no protection in the form of a temporary residence permit during the determination process. As a result, applicants have no access to basic social rights and may be subjected to arbitrary and protracted detention. One of many such stories of arbitrary detention is the case of 72-year-old Ms L. to whom FAR is providing legal advice. Ms L. has been living in Bulgaria since 1995. In May 2019, the police established that she did not have any identification documents and issued her with a return order, placing her in immigration detention for removal. Even though Ms. L. has assisted the authorities in her identification and signed a “declaration of voluntary return”, she was detained because of a “risk of absconding”. As a 72-year-old stateless woman, Ms L. has fragile health and had to undergo surgery while in detention. Meanwhile, FAR actively assisted Ms L. to make an application for a “non-citizenship certificate” at the embassy of the country of which she was considered to be a citizen by the Bulgarian authorities. The Consulate of that country sent an official letter to the Migration Directorate stating that Ms L. was not their citizen. Although the letter clearly indicated a lack of reasonable prospects of Ms. L. returning to that country, the Migration directorate extended Ms L.’s detention by six more months. Once again, she was not identified as a stateless person, but continued to be regarded as a citizen of the country that had officially confirmed she was not its citizen. Nine months later Ms L. remains in detention. Currently, we are assisting her to challenge the extension of her detention in court.
Looking to the future
Bulgaria needs to continue on its path to improving its law and practice to protect stateless people. The Government should take concrete steps to improve recognition of stateless status and to ensure that officials are trained to accurately identify and take statelessness into consideration. FAR will continue its work both providing direct legal assistance to stateless individuals, and advocating for speedy reforms to patch up the remaining holes in Bulgaria’s statelessness system. This includes ongoing work in partnership with ENS to use opportunities like the forthcoming conference in Alicante to influence key decision-makers and activities like last year’s communications project, which enabled five stateless people in Bulgaria to tell their stories. The ultimate aim and what drives our work forward is to support people like Ms L., Sager and others FAR helps every day not to be locked away in limbo, but to get the justice and respect they deserve.