We find out what's going on along the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, as Sofia seeks Schengen Area accession amid worrying reports of abuse and violence towards migrants by Bulgarian border police.
Bulgaria has long sought to join the Schengen Area of free movement which allows border-free travel between Schengen Area EU countries without being subject to border checks
The European Parliament and EU Commission both say that Bulgaria is ready to join the borderless zone, and have urged the EU Council to give the green light before the end of 2023.
But Schengen Area accession requires unanimity among member states. So far, the Netherlands and Austria have blocked Bulgaria’s attempts to join, warning that large numbers of migrants are entering the EU via the so-called Western Balkan route.
At the same time, some NGOs have sounded the alarm over the alleged use of violence by Bulgarian border guards against migrants trying to enter the country.
Euronews Witness travelled along the Turkish-Bulgarian border to find out more.
A spike in border tensions
Bulgaria is a member of NATO and the European Union. The Iron Curtain, which divided Europe after World War Two, has been replaced by a modern border fence to prevent migrants from crossing illegally into the EU.
In 2022, the Bulgarian border police thwarted 164,000 irregular crossing attempts, compared to 55,000 in 2021, according to figures provided by Sofia’s interior ministry.
The EU recently earmarked €200 million in financial support to help Bulgaria upgrade its border management. But in recent months, Bulgaria has been rocked by tragic events.
Several police officers have been killed in road collisions involving human traffickers transporting migrants.
In February, the bodies of 18 suffocated Afghan nationals were found in a vehicle transporting timber outside Sofia, where some 52 migrants were crammed in for several days.
In addition, multiple allegations have been made about Bulgarian border guards beating up migrants and pushing them back to Turkey.
“For one year, we had more than 600 people who officially shared with us that they had faced border violence and pushbacks on the border," revealed Diana Dimova, founder of the human rights organisation 'Mission Wings.' "We saw so many scars. The Bulgarian border police beat them,” she added.
Local 'Mission Wings' coordinator and translator Hamid Khoshseiar is from Iran. The physician spent two years in the notorious Evin prison in Teheran.
Hamid crossed Turkey and marched by foot into Bulgaria – where he met Bulgarian border guards.
“They forced me to remove my shirt, until my neck and lay down on the ground. And after that, they started beating me. I had one stick to use for walking. They started to beat me with that stick until it's broken," he told Euronews.
The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO based out of Sofia, documented 5000 cases of illegal pushbacks last year. Experts say the real figure could be much higher.
Bulgarian police deny cruelty
The international investigative platform 'Lighthouse Reports' gave Euronews access to a video appearing to show migrants trying to climb over a border fence, throwing stones and shouting insults.
Then some shots can be heart. One of the migrants breaks down. He is severely injured.
“The bullet went straight through. First through the muscle of my hand. It came out from the opposite side and then went right next to my heart, then got stuck in my back," Abdullah El Rustum Mohammed told Euronews.
"The bullet wasn't shot into the air, they shot at me with a clear intention of killing,” he said.
Ivaylo Tonchev, the Director of the Regional Border Guard unit in Elhovo told Euronews that several investigations had been conducted, including the examination of the sophisticated border surveillance camera archive.
They concluded, however, that there had been no incident at this location.
“What is useful and works out perfectly well, in this specific case, that’s the video camera surveillance at this location, which is of very high quality," Ivaylo Tonchev said.
"Regarding this incident: I had an extraordinary meeting with my Turkish colleague from Kirklareli, close to Malko Tarnovo. He told me that this group (of migrants) never made it to the border.”
“There is no violence against migrants," he insisted. "The only cases where physical force is used, this is done in accordance with the legislation of our country. But there are aggressive groups (of migrants), throwing stones at us.”