Bulgaria’s systematic expulsion of refugees and migrants to Turkey without an examination of the individual risk of ill-treatment violates the European Convention on Human Rights. This is what the European Court of Human Rights ruled in July 2021. The court declared that Bulgaria’s handover of Turkish journalist D back to Turkey was unlawful since the authorities had failed to carry out an assessment of the risk the journalist faced in Turkey and had deprived him of the possibility to challenge the removal. Bulgaria was ordered to pay 15.000 euros in compensation to the applicant.
D is a journalist who had worked for the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman and the press agency Cihan, both perceived by the Turkish government as supporting the Gülen movement which was designated a terrorist organization (FETÖ). In the wake of an attempted coup in July 2016, D was dismissed and his press accreditation revoked. Fearing further reprisals, he boarded a lorry in October 2016, crossed into Bulgaria and was apprehended close to the Romanian border.
Despite expressing his fear of return, at no point did the Bulgarian officers assess the risk he faced in Turkey. He was refused access to both a lawyer and interpreter and was forced to sign documents he did not understand. Within less than 24 hours, D was handcuffed and handed over to the Turkish authorities who held him in detention. He was later tried and convicted of membership of FETÖ and sentenced to seven and a half years. This conviction relied heavily on the fact that D had the Bylock application on his cell phone, considered by Turkish courts as tantamount to affiliation to the Gülen movement.
Although he had not specifically requested asylum in front of the Bulgarian authorities, the court clarified that if the state was made aware of facts that could expose an individual to risk of ill-treatment on return in breach of article 3 ECHR (prohibition of torture), it was incumbent on the state to assess such a risk of its own motion. Additionally, the court found the authorities had acted in extreme haste, failing to comply with domestic procedures, and rendering the available remedies redundant so that D was unable to challenge the removal, breaching article 13 ECHR (right to an effective remedy).
Acting as a gatekeeper to the EU with its key position at the union’s external border, Bulgaria has long adopted the strategy of brutal push-backs, unlawfully handing refugees directly back to their persecutors in Turkey. NGOs have consistently reported on this practice, documenting how Turkish nationals in particular are denied access to asylum.