Bulgaria: Hunger strike of migrants/refugees in Lyubimets

Short report we received about migrants’ hunger strike in Lyubimets:
Currently 25 people are holding a hunger strike in the migrant detention center in the town of Lyubimets in South-Eastern Bulgaria, close to the Turkish border. The hunger strike was initiated on August 14th by 14 inmates; 11 other joined afterwards. A considerable part of the protesters comes from Syria, while four people from Iraq have joined the struggle. There are minors among the strikers. The hunger strikers refuse to take any kind of food. They demand an acceleration of their asylum procedures and their immediate release from the prison. There are between 55 and 60 people in the facility in Lyubimets at the moment.

The news about the hunger strike in Lyubimets came while we were having dinner with some of the migrants who are “accommodated” in the so-called open camp in Pastrogor. They break the news as nothing really has happened. The hunger strikes in the detention camp, as it turns out, are an often occurrence. Certainly, the Ministry of Interior keeps quite about them. The media does not find it necessary to delve into why people protest so often in the camp.

As migrants that are currently imprisoned in Lyubimets tell us “Our demand is simple. We want out of Lyubimets!” Their frustration comes from a Catch 22 situation in Bulgaria that has been widely criticized by human right lawyers and organizations (you may search related info on the “Centre for Temporary Accommodation of Aliens” in Sofia’s Bousmantsi borough).

The situation in Bulgaria is such that once one crosses the Bulgarian border he/she is arrested and charged with “illegal crossing.” After a few days in state detention the migrants are sent to either Busmantsi or Lyubimets, closed camps for foreigners. These places are supposed to hold people who have been refused refugee status and are awaiting deportation to their home countries. What happens however is that asylum-seekers are stuck there for up to 6 months while waiting to be moved to one of the State Agency for Refugees’ reception centers, where their asylum procedure has to begin. Despite the state’s assurance that this illegal detention will cease once the transit center in Pastrogor opens doors, this does not happen. Pastrogor opened doors on May 3rd, 2012 and to this very day the practice of detaining asylum-seekers continues.

While talking to the inmates in Lyubimets who are on strike they tell us that they have been told that Pastrogor is full. A surprising statement, one would say, because the capacity of the center is for 350 people. Currently, there are between 90 and 100 people “accommodated.”

As we reach the gates of the camp we can see around 40 people hanging at the windows of the prison and holding their t-shirts outside the window. One can read FREEDOM written with big letters. As we approach the barbed wired walls we can hear them scream “Liberty! – Help Us!” Luckily, together with us are Ahmad, Radan, and Ashi.* They call people inside the prison, and we start to talk on the phone and they relate many stories surrounding the strike.

When the strike entered its 3rd day (17.8.2012), prisoners were tired but they were still holding strong. According to them, no physical violence has been exercised on them but they relate stories that speak of psychological such. “It is not my problem that you are not eating. If you die we’ll feed you to the fish. This is Bulgaria. If you are looking for human rights here, you won’t find them!” Ahmad tells me, relating the words of the “big boss” that he has been told just a few hours ago. The authorities of the center have threatened them that if they do not start eating they will never receive status in Bulgaria.

The people who are held in Lyubimets complain that they have to pay for translators. It is 40 euros per person and 100 euros per family. Ahmad asks me: “So, what does that mean? If we are poor, we are not humans?”

On 17/8 we received news from Lyubimets that they will terminate the strike for two days. If the State does not find a solution, they will continue on Monday, 20/8. Three of us are staying in Pastrogor until the 21st of August and we will keep you posted for new developments.
* All names are changed.