From 12 to 14 February, MEPs from the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs in the European Parliament were in Bulgaria with the objective of obtaining first-hand information on the ongoing Frontex operations at the Bulgarian land border with Turkey. Frontex supports Bulgaria in border checks and intelligence gathering at border crossing points, border surveillance, the gathering of information and in screening, fingerprinting and registration of migrants. MEPs visited the region of the border crossing point of “Kapitan Andreevo” at the Bulgarian-Turkish border where these activities are undertaken. They also met with relevant stakeholders including Bulgarian authorities (Ministry of Interior, Bulgarian Border Police, International Coordination Centre), international organisations and NGOs.inspected the Captain Andreevo border checkpoint at the Bulgaria-Turkey border.
Marie-Christine Vergiat, Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left, led the mission consisting of the following members: Tanja Fajon (S&D, Slovenia), Judith Sargentini (Green/EFA group, Netherlands, Jaromir Štětina (EPP, Czech Republic), Emil Radev (EPP, Bulgaria) and Filiz Hyusmenova (ALDE, Bulgaria).
Asked yesterday (19 February) to describe the mission, Vergiat told this website:
“Our mission was to oversee the joint missions in which Frontex is involved. The Bulgarian authorities have been helpful and we have met with a large number of stakeholders with whom we were able to discuss issues in a sufficiently open way. One thing that has disturbed us is that the authorities for the control of borders and the authorities in charge of migration issues are not the same. We met people who wanted to prove to us, Europeans, that they were guarding well the border. I think Frontex plays its role well, but it is clear that Frontex will not replace the national border guard services. They can offer assistance in case of problems, but they will not replace the national border guards, in Bulgaria or in any other member state.”
“We also met NGOs and I must say we didn’t hear the same arguments from both sides. We realised the contradictions between them, and the government told us there was no proof for what NGOs were saying. In three days we couldn’t see everything. We visited Kapitan Andreevo and the border fence, called “temporary engineering obstructing facility”, and by the way we were quite puzzled by the “temporary” name. Actually we couldn’t verify anything. It’s not by spending a few hours that you can verify if the allegations of the ones or the others are founded or not.”
Vergiat said the role of Frontex deserved praise. “The NGOs told us, that whenever a Frontex officer was involved in a [Bulgarian border guard] patrolling group, there were no abuses”, she said.
“The issue of major concern for us was to see the efficiency of the cooperation between the Bulgarian and the Turkish border guards. We were told that this cooperation dated back to the 1960s. [At that time, Turkey’s border guards returned to Communist Bulgaria the Bulgarian nationals trying to escape. They received heavy sentences and some were executed.] This has shocked me a bit. Moreover, last week the European Parliament adopted a report on human rights in Turkey, and this police cooperation was puzzling us, especially since both sides were telling us that when they saw large groups of people on the Turkish side of the border, that the Bulgarian border guards called on the Turkish border guards. So this avoids the push-back. I keep asking myself, maybe among them there are also Turkish citizens. And they are sent back to the Turkish authorities.”
“From the way the [Bulgarian authorities] answered to many of our questions, the least we can say is that we can have our doubts. When they tell us: “we alert the Turkish border guards”, this is tantamount to push-backs, made by the Turkish authorities, following a gentle notification from the Bulgarian authorities. These people are simply prevented from claiming for asylum at the border, and maybe among them are Turkish citizens”, Vergiat said.
Asked if she was aware that Bulgaria deports to Turkey alleged Gülenists, Vergiat said she was not aware of any details, but she was not at all surprised.
“When we see [how smooth is] the police cooperation between Bulgaria and Turkey, this has worried us. Our mandate was very narrow, but we kept stressing the importance of respect of fundamental rights, of the right of asylum. We were told that in the cases that people cross the border, they are arrested for 24 hours for checking their identity, and during these 24 hours they can ask for asylum. In such cases they are sent to a specialised centre, we were told. But asylum was not part of our mandate.
Asked if she considers that the cooperation between the Bulgarian and Turkish border authorities has little respect for fundamental rights, she answered positively, but added that she could be much more critical in her capacity of MEP from the GUE/NGL group than as chief of the mission.
“When we were asking about corruption, my colleague Judith Sargentini asked a question related to a case in which Dutch nationals had had problems, we were told it was European citizens who were trying to corrupt the Bulgarian border guards, and not the other way around. We were also told that there were ways to watch the border guards, and that there was a system of rotation where they never knew their destination, so that they would not collude with anyone. The Bulgarian MEP Emil Radev form the ruling party said at the press conference that we did not identify a single act of breach of human rights, but this proves nothing. It’s not possible in 24 hours to assess if fundamental rights are respected, and I said this, speaking after him.”
Asked about the follow up, Vergiat said that the MEPs had expressed the wish to do more in terms of making sure fundamental rights are respected. In her capacity of MEP from GUE/NGL, she said she would press for another mission in Bulgaria, in particular on the issues of migration and right of asylum. She said this could take place at the earliest in the second part of the year.
Asked what she would respond if she is accused of meddling in Bulgaria’s internal affairs, as it was the case recently with another MEP, Ska Keller, Vergiat said that Bulgaria was a country that asked and was admitted to the EU. “To be in the EU means applying a number of European rules, and it’s not only about controlling the borders. It’s controlling borders in full respect of fundamental rights, and this is the position of the European Parliament.
Spéciale dédicace à mes ami-e-s lisant le cyrillique
Bilan de la mission de la délégation du Parlement européen que j'ai conduite en Bulgarie https://t.co/zQjAYCwwaC
— M C Vergiat (@MCVergiat) February 15, 2018