« Bulgaria should ensure that children’s rights are fully respected in the process of de-institutionalisation and reforming the juvenile justice system» said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, at the end of a three-day visit to Bulgaria.
"Bulgaria should stop placing children in institutions such as Correctional Boarding Schools, which were created several decades ago to deal with children's 'anti-social behaviour' and where children victims of violence are kept together with young offenders" said the Commissioner after visiting one such institution for girls in Podem. “A reform of the juvenile justice system is needed to replace the outdated repressive legislation with one fully protecting children's rights and enabling children at risk and in conflict with the law to fully re-integrate into society.”
Referring to reported cases of violence perpetrated in several types of institutions for children, both among children and by adults, the Commissioner called on the Bulgarian authorities to investigate such allegations and protect children from further harm. “The introduction in 2012 of the National Preventive Mechanism run by the Ombudsman Office is a step in the right direction. However, it needs additional human and financial resources to be able to cover the existing 650 institutions where adults and children can be deprived of their liberty.”
As concerns de-institutionalisation of children more generally, Bulgaria's efforts have led to a significant decrease in the number of children living in institutions since the beginning of the process in 2001. «However, the authorities should further strengthen their focus on measures to support families and prevent separation of children from their parents. Particular attention should be paid to avoid re-institutionalisation in smaller institutions that do not fully enable children to enjoy their right to live in the community».
Bulgaria should also be more ambitious concerning de-institutionalisation of adults with disabilities, setting clear targets and time-frames for the implementation of the strategy it recently adopted in this field. Referring to the on-going reform of the legal capacity system, the Commissioner strongly encouraged the Bulgarian authorities to move forward and bring it in line with the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. "In addition to legislative changes, everything should be put in place to give persons with disabilities access to the necessary support to make decisions about where and with whom to live or what community services to access».
As regards media freedom, the Commissioner is concerned at the insufficient transparency of media ownership and financing and lack of action against media concentration. This has reportedly resulted in a media landscape worryingly characterised by many outlets serving few interests. « Genuine media pluralism is the institutional guarantee for the fulfilment of the right to receive and impart information and the authorities must take steps to secure it.” Referring to the recent imposition of high fines by the Bulgarian financial supervision authority on media reporting on companies' financial activities and the banking sector, he says that “this is very disturbing. In a context already characterised by limited space for free reporting in the public interest, these fines clearly induce further self-censorship».
« While I was heartened to see that material and living conditions of asylum seekers have improved since my last visit one year ago, progress needs to be sustained through adequate allocation of funds to ensure the proper running of all the reception centres throughout the country », said the Commissioner after his visit to the Voenna Rampa Reception Centre. “Much more needs to be done to meet the special needs of asylum seekers in a vulnerable situation, such as unaccompanied minors.”
Noting that the legislation on asylum and refugees was under review, the Commissioner stresses that administrative detention of asylum seekers can only be used as a last resort and for the shortest period of time. The Commissioner also urges the authorities to investigate allegations of push-backs at the border and take all necessary steps to prevent any such practices. Lastly, he calls for an ambitious integration strategy with concrete measures, including measures aimed at tackling hate speech and countering the worrying number of hate crimes recently perpetrated against asylum seekers and refugees.
The Commissioner's report on his visit to Bulgaria is forthcoming.