Watchdog: Bulgaria prevents Syrians from entering

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — An international rights organization called on Bulgaria's government Tuesday to stop forcefully returning asylum seekers from its borders before they have the chance to apply for refugee status.

Human Rights Watch said Bulgaria has been summarily pushing back Syrians, Afghans and others as they cross the border from Turkey. The New York-based group said that people have been improperly forced back with no opportunity to lodge asylum claims.

Last year Bulgaria was caught unprepared by a surge of 11,600 refugees, mainly Syrians. To prevent a further massive influx, the government deployed 1,500 more police officers at the Turkish border and began building a fence along a 33-kilometer (20-mile) stretch.

Human Rights Watch says its activists have interviewed 177 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in various locations in both Bulgaria and Turkey. Of these, 41 gave detailed accounts of 44 incidents involving at least 519 people in which Bulgarian border police apprehended and returned them to Turkey, in some instances using violence.

"Slamming the door on refugees is not the way to deal with an increase in people seeking protection," said Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch refugee rights program director.

Frelick acknowledged that Bulgaria is faced with a humanitarian challenge, but added that "even with limited capacity, shoving people back over the border is no way to respect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants."

Bulgaria's Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev said he was surprised by the claims about the country's immigration policies. He denied the allegations, and called them "blatant lies," which he said could be easily verified.

"The larger part of the border is equipped with CCTV cameras and everything that is happening there is observed and recorded," Yovchev said. "The footage can be checked and I can guarantee that there is no violence."