On 20 March at 3:16 pm, all Police officers at Sofia Airport terminal 2 inexplicably left their jobs. Ten minutes later, the passengers of flight FB 432 from Paris to Sofia entered the border control hall. The border police officers were missing and so the passengers enter the country without being subjected to the mandatory identity control. Krassen Nikolov has the story.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and is a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Border police officers returned to work at 3:32 pm. Five minutes later, the Paris-Sofia flight was documented into the system as “processed”, ie. that all passengers had passed passport control.
Although the authorities knew about the case, measures have been taken only after the incident was reported in the media. On 24 March Prime Minister Boyko Borissov ordered the dismissal of all 13 border guards responsible for having let in 42 passengers without verification. The reasons mentioned for their absence from work were different – some were at the toilet, others explained they were having a smoke, some said they went to lunch.
This case came amid the criticism by Borissov that some of the EU countries “invent” motives for preventing Bulgaria to join Schengen. In early February in Brussels, the Prime Minister said:
“It is not fair to invent motives that are inexistent. And it is becoming more and more difficult to invent such, because both the (EU) commission and the (European) parliament checked the border and it turns out that Bulgaria is best guarding them, but you continue to invent. This is offensive for us. We are fulfilling our commitments. The Bulgarian taxpayer gives hundreds of millions for the European security”, Borissov said on that occassion.
A few days later, on a visit to Sofia, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reiterated his position that Bulgaria would not be accepted in Schengen because there is still work to do. He proved to be right.
Only a month and a half later the Bulgarian authorities were forced to recognise the problems because of the disturbing incident at the airport. The interior ministry has said that such incidents normally lead to the country’s ratings in terms of border security.
“What is happening is amazing and quite unpleasant, but despite the mistake, our land borders continue to be very safe and we continue to be satisfied, not only us, but also Frontex (the European External Border Service) etc. So this case is one spot that we need to clean up quickly and prove to our partners that we are guarding well the borders of the EU”, Interior Minister Valentin Radev said after the incident.
The behavior of airport employees is a very serious blow to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s position, because it highlighted a breach in the most strictly guarded part of the Bulgarian territory – the Sofia airport.
The incident at the airport is presented as an isolated mishap, but this also is not true. On 27 March, a week after the Paris-Sofia flight, a new signal was issued. A passenger arriving from Amsterdam signaled that there were no police officers at the counters once again. The Border Police hastened to deny this information, but the doubts only deepened because of the authorities’ efforts to conceal the case of Paris flights.
The often used cliché of European media for Bulgaria is that it is the most corrupt and poor country in the EU. This cliché is however plausible in explaining airport border control problems.
In May 2017, special services cracked down a human trafficking channel, again through Sofia Airport. The prosecution announced that in exchange of €5,000 foreigners with fake documents were allowed to enter the country. This was done again with the assistance of the border police. During the specialized operation, six people were arrested, including two border guards, two traffickers and two people from Cyprus and Bangladesh with fake passports. The Human Trafficking Channel has been functioning for at least a few months, and the authorities do not know how many people were allowed to enter with fake passports.
The head of the border police at the Bulgarian airports is Milen Penev. He was appointed head of the entire Border Police in early 2015, but only four months later was removed from the post. The reason was allowing trucks loaded with smuggled cigarettes to pass the border crossing of Captain Andreevo at the border with Turkey. Milen Penev was downgraded to head of the border police at the airports. The incidents, however, did not stop, and Penev still occupies this position.
Problems related to security and corruption exist at all levels in Bulgaria. On 3 April, two dangerous prisoners managed to escape the Sofia Central Prison. Most likely, through bribery, they were able to acquire a firearm and a knife while they were serving their punishment under the highest possible security regime, which isolates them even from the other inmates. One of the prisoner was convicted for killing two people, and the other sentenced for having kidnapped a mother with a child, robbery, and attempted murder of police officers. They were able to pass all the prison guard posts and go through the main entrance without any of the guards event attempting to shoot at them. A car was waiting for them in front of the prison, in clear indication that the escape had been planned in advance.
The official inspection revealed that the only person who had chased them until they left the prison was the jail cleaning lady.