Bulgaria’s systematic expulsion of refugees and migrants to Turkey without an individual examination of the risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment violates the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled today.
In the case D v. Bulgaria, the Court unanimously found that the applicant, a Turkish journalist, was forcibly returned to Turkey. The Bulgarian authorities had failed to carry out an assessment of the risk he faced there, and deprived him of the possibility to challenge his removal, breaching articles 3 (prohibition of torture) and 13 (right to an effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Court found. He was supported in the proceedings by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, The Center for Legal Aid - Voice in Bulgaria and Foundation PRO ASYL.
“The ECtHR's decision provides belated but important satisfaction for the applicant. It sets a strong counterpoint to Bulgaria's longstanding practice of denying refugees protection from persecution and handing them straight back to their persecutors,” says attorney Carsten Gericke, D’s counsel. “This is a clear signal to Bulgaria that pushbacks, as carried out along the EU’s external borders, must come to an end and access to human rights and to asylum must be guaranteed.”
After many years working as a journalist in Turkey, D was compelled to leave the country due to increasing state repression in the aftermath of the attempted coup d'état in July 2016. Together with eight other refugees from Turkey and Syria, he was apprehended in a truck at the Bulgarian-Romanian border on October 14, 2016. Despite expressing his fear of return to Turkey, at no point did the Bulgarian authorities assess the risk of torture, mistreatment and further political persecution faced by the applicant in Turkey. He was not allowed access to a lawyer or interpreter and was returned to Turkey within less than 24 hours.
“This is a breakthrough decision for guaranteeing the right to asylum procedures and protecting asylum seekers from removal to the country where they face persecution,” adds Diana Radoslavova from the Center for Legal Aid - Voice in Bulgaria.
Upon arrival in Turkey, D was immediately detained, and later, in December 2019, sentenced to seven and a half years of imprisonment for membership of a terrorist organization FETÖ. The verdict against him was largely based on the fact that he had the messenger application, 'Bylock', on his cell phone. Following the Turkish government's assertion that the app is used by the Gülen movement, which it declared a terrorist organization, Turkish courts have viewed the use of the app as sufficient proof of affiliation to the group.
“The right to asylum is under attack. Today's ruling has once again clarified that the protection from refoulement is absolute. The fight against pushbacks and violence at the EU's borders continues - with new tailwind from Strasbourg,” says Karl Kopp from PRO ASYL.
NGOs have consistently reported on pushbacks at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, documenting how Turkish nationals in particular are denied access to asylum. In 2018, the Council of Europe's Special Representative on migration and refugees, Tomáš Boček, criticized the lack of respect for the principle of non-refoulement and urged for the individual examination of personal risk refugees/applicants might face when they are deported back to Turkey.