“Bulgaria has made some progress in strengthening human rights protection, but this remains slow and fragile, in particular as regard the rights of persons placed in institutions, the human rights of migrants and media freedom,” said today Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, while releasing a report on his visit to Bulgaria carried out from 9 to 11 February 2015.
The Commissioner recommends speeding up the deinstitutionalisation of children and ensuring that residential institutions are replaced by family and community-based services. He also recommends overhauling the juvenile justice system and abolishing correctional boarding schools where children with so-called “anti-social behaviour” are sent. “Children are sent to such places established on the basis of obsolete legislation without a due assessment of their needs and where physical and psychological violence happens regularly. Once they are inside, they lack the necessary protection and are cut-off from quality education, thus reducing their chances of reintegrating into society.”
While Bulgaria has committed to enabling adults with disabilities to move out of institutions and live within the community, the deinstitutionalisation process for these persons remains very slow. “One of the main obstacles is the legal capacity regime currently in place, which often leads to the placement of persons under full or partial guardianship in institutions. I encourage the Bulgarian authorities to strengthen their efforts to change this system and move towards a system of supported decision-making.”
Reception conditions of asylum seekers have been partially improved, but the progress achieved and the resources available to ensure basic assistance are fragile. The Commissioner calls on the Bulgarian authorities to address current shortcomings in the system for the early identification, assessment and referral of vulnerable asylum-seekers with specific needs, including unaccompanied children, and the lack of specific support for these persons. He also recommends improving access to free legal aid in asylum procedures.
The Commissioner recommends remedying the frequent unlawful detention of asylum seekers and the inadequate material conditions in immigration detention centres, as well as investigating all cases of ill-treatment in these centres. “Immigration detention must only be used as a last resort, for the shortest possible period of time and on the basis of individual assessments. Children should not be subjected to immigration detention, whether with or without their families.” Moreover, the Commissioner calls on the Bulgarian authorities to ensure that migrants arriving at Bulgaria’s border are not subject to push-backs and collective expulsions and to effectively investigate any such allegations.
The Commissioner urges the authorities to do more to ensure the integration of recognised refugees and other beneficiaries of international protection in Bulgaria.
Another issue of concern is the media environment. Lack of pluralism, opaque media ownership and financing, and editorial control exerted by political figures through advertisement and information contracts are among the main concerns. “The Bulgarian authorities should improve the independence of media outlets, including by distributing revenues from public advertisement and information contracts to private media outlets in a transparent and non-discriminatory way. They should also establish independent monitoring of media ownership and financing, as well as rules aimed at limiting excessive concentration of media ownership and favouring media pluralism.”
Lastly, the Commissioner recommends the Bulgarian authorities to better protect journalists, investigate effectively all attacks and intimidation against them and review current media legislation in order to better shield journalistic sources from undue pressure. He also recommends reducing the risk of censorship or self-censorship by ensuring that no fines are imposed by the Financial Supervision Commission for journalistic work, fully decriminalising defamation and guaranteeing the efficiency of media regulatory and ethical bodies, such as the Council for Electronic Media and the National Journalism Ethics Commission.