The respondent, a 23-year-old Algerian man, was subjected to a coordinated return from Slovakia (formal readmission) to Bulgaria before being pushed back from Bulgaria to Turkey on January 9th 2023. This testimony will describe the events of the respondent’s six month journey leading to the final pushback from Bulgaria to Turkey in early 2023.
In June 2022, the respondent reportedly crossed from Greece to Bulgaria and made his way to a camp in Sofia where he was fingerprinted and given a paper that permitted his stay in Bulgaria. He was then quarantined for 15 days in this camp before being brought to Harmanli, a small village near the border. He was not pushed back but he left in this village.
From Harmanli, the respondent reportedly walked to Zemen, a small village near the Serbian border. He described this border as open with no fences nor technology to prevent or detect crossing. The respondent recalled that the first Serbian village he arrived at was Bosilegrad, and from there he walked to Belgrade where he was able to take a shower and wash his clothes at the Collective Aid Wash Centre. He quickly moved on to Subotica, which he described as having a largely Afghan population. He stayed there for three months in what he described as an ‘open government camp’ to recover from the journey he had undertaken so far. He tried to cross into Hungary twice near Subotica through a national park region but was pushed back both times. He then moved to Horgos where he tried a further five times to cross. He explained how he was subject to violence by what he described as national police forces on all crossing attempts – he identified the police by their uniforms which had ‘police’ written on them in Hungarian and had the Hungarian flag sewed onto either the arm or the shoulder. He described the violence each time as being beaten with a plastic police baton.
After the failed attempts to cross, he made his way to Sombor where he met a 39-year-old Moroccan man who continued with him on his transit route. They attempted to cross into Hungary four times and were detected three of the times at a truck car park near the crossing point and returned to Serbia from Hungary. The respondent did not know how they detected them but thought maybe some technology, like thermal imaging cameras, could have been used to detect them. Each of the three times they were returned, he described the same Hungarian police uniforms being worn by the perpetrators and said two of the times he was beaten with a plastic police baton by more than one of the officers. On the fourth time, they were reportedly not detected and managed to cross into Hungary.
The transit group then reportedly made their way through Budapest and crossed into Slovakia. They then reached a village called Rimavská where they stopped at a cafe to buy water and cigarettes, recalled the respondent. Whilst in the cafe, the respondent assumed that the people in the cafe called the police because shortly afterwards a police car pulled up. The respondent identified this as a regular police car with the word ‘police’ written on it in blue writing in Slovakian. There were two male police officers inside who wore blue police uniforms with the Slovakian flag on the arm. They reportedly took the two people on the move into the car. The respondent stated the officers were not violent with them and they did not cuff them.
They were then reportedly driven to the Rimavská police department. The Moroccan individual had not previously been fingerprinted so he was fingerprinted and released almost immediately with a seven day permit to stay in the country; he is currently residing in Spain. The Algerian respondent had been fingerprinted in Bulgaria and informed the officers of this. He explained that he did not want to ask for asylum but told them he wanted to continue his journey. He stated that he was held in this police department for the rest of the day where he was not subject to ill-treatment and was provided with food, water and access to facilities. From there he was transferred by what he described as a regular police car to a closed camp close to the Ukrainian border.
In this camp, the respondent recalled being held for three days in quarantine and after that, remained in the camp for another month and 25 days. He described the camp as ‘fine’, with no ill-treatment and access to sufficient food and water, and use of the facilities. 10 days after his original quarantine, he was called into the camp office where there was a Syrian translator present, and they reportedly asked him if he wanted to ask for asylum or be assigned a lawyer. He replied that he wanted to continue his journey. The respondent described how at the end of his one month and 25 day stay, he was again called to the same office along with one male from Pakistan of unknown age who had been fingerprinted in Romania. Once in the office, the respondent stated that an official in the camp gave him a letter written in Slovakian and forced him to sign it – there was no translator present. From that office, he recalled being taken outside to a large white truck that had the word ‘police’ written on it in dark green in Slovakian; in the truck were two police officers in khaki uniforms with the Slovakian flag on their shoulders.
The respondent and the man from Pakistan were reportedly transferred in this truck to a police department close to Bratislava. In this police department, the respondent recalled being taken to a cell where one Syrian man and his sister were already being held – the two of them had had their fingerprints taken in Bulgaria. The four individuals were held there for one day – again the respondent reported no ill-treatment and access given to food, water, and the facilities. The group were reportedly given a paper written in Slovakian – no translation was provided – and were taken from this police department and loaded into a black van with no writing or marking on it. This van reportedly took them to Bratislava airport where they were loaded onto a normal-sized commercial flight plane. The respondent did not remember any colours, markings or logos on the plane. On the plane were the four individuals (respondent, Pakistani male, Syrian male, Syrian female) and what were described as five Slovakian police officers with one sitting next to each person. All of them were reportedly cuffed for the duration of the journey. The respondent stated the plane first flew to Romania where the man from Pakistan disembarked; the respondent could not identify which city or airport they were in. The remaining three people remained handcuffed on the plane which then flew directly to Sofia.
After disembarking the plane, the respondent described being given a paper with Bulgarian writing and a stamp from the camp in Sofia that he had previously stayed in. He was directly released from the airport and decided to walk to the camp which was not so far away. The respondent explained that when he entered the camp, he gave the officials the paper from the airport and they gave him a seven day paper and granted him entry to stay in the camp. After those seven days he reportedly returned to the camp office and was given a three month paper.
After spending 20 days resting and recovering, he decided to try and resume his journey. He reported leaving the camp with a transit group of 20 other Syrian individuals – the majority were male but there were two females present also. At approximately five kilometres from the Serbian border, the group were reportedly stopped by a Bulgarian border patrol consisting of one dark green truck and four men described as Bulgarian officers wearing dark green uniforms with the Bulgarian flag on their shoulders. The four officers reportedly apprehended the group; again, the respondent was not sure how they had been detected. The officers reportedly searched each member of the group with their clothes on, and confiscated any phones and money or valuable items that they found; the respondent had nothing on him so therefore had nothing confiscated. The respondent assumed that the officers called for backup because shortly afterwards, a black truck arrived with a Bulgarian number plate. The respondent further described that inside it were metal seats and it was large enough to hold the whole group with each having their own seat. The transit group were reportedly taken in this truck to a police department at the border post, as they were apprehended close to the Serbian border. The respondent stated that the group were unloaded into a cell and had their shoelaces and jackets taken from them; these were never returned. They were not photographed, nor did they have their fingerprints taken or forced to sign papers. The respondent described this police cell as too small for the amount of people inside. The original transit group had been 20 people and already the cell had contained two or three other individuals from a previous apprehension. The respondent said there was no toilet accessible from the cell and they were not provided with food or water, despite being held there for the entire day and night. The respondent reported that he saw others being beaten with plastic batons by the officers inside the cell and stated that people were beaten if they made noise or asked questions; he was not beaten because he knew ‘how to behave with them’. The respondent stated that he showed the officers his Bulgarian paper allowing him to stay on the territory but they ignored him.
The following morning, at approximately six o’clock, a large unmarked white van reportedly arrived and the entire group were loaded in. They were driven down for several hours until they reached the Bulgarian-Turkish border area. The respondent noted that the Bulgarian officers stopped to greet and speak with the Turkish army on the other side of one of the border posts and assumed they knew there were people on the move in the van about to be pushed back. The van then reportedly continued to drive along the border stopping at different hand-made holes in the fence and at each hole a small group was let out and pushed back to Turkey. The respondent explained that at some point he and two other individuals were taken from the van, had their shoes taken from them, the respondent’s Bulgarian paper was stolen and torn up by one of the officers wearing a dark green uniform, and they were pushed back to Turkey.
On the Turkish side, they reconvened as a group of around eight individuals and walked approximately eight kilometres to the nearest village. There, people gave them food, water and shoes. The seven other people got a taxi to Istanbul and the respondent returned to Edirne by taxi where he has remained since. This final pushback happened on the 9th January 2023.