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Bulgaria: Police arrest 15 alleged smugglers in nationwide raid

Hundreds of irregular migrants were detained throughout the country during the operation, while an estimated 40 migrants were found in a tanker truck that had been modified to carry people.

Police in Bulgaria arrested 15 alleged smugglers and detained around 300 irregular migrants during a large scale police operation, news agency dpa reported on July 14.  

The 48-hour nationwide law enforcement operation involved searches carried out across the country.

On Thursday (July 13), an estimated 40 migrants, including children, were found in a tanker truck that had been modified to carry people.  

The smugglers were “extraordinarily inventive” in their routes and means of transport, said Petar Todorov, secretary general of Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry, according to the dpa report. 

Bulgaria, located in southeastern Europe, is a major transit and departure point for irregular migration to the European Union (EU). 

A 259-kilometer barbed wire fence runs along Bulgaria’s border with neighboring Turkey and has been monitored via thermal imaging cameras since 2017, reported dpa

As a transit point, migrants try to cross the border irregularly to avoid being registered at an official border point in Bulgaria and travel onwards to Central and Western Europe. 

Bulgaria’s pending accession to Schengen

The nationwide police raid comes in the wake of Bulgaria’s pending accession to Europe’s passport-free Schengen area by 2024. 

Despite being part of the European Union since 2007, Bulgaria is not part of the Schengen visa-free travel area. Other EU member states that are not part of the visa-free area include Cyprus, Ireland and Romania.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament called on member states to approve the accession of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen zone, citing their exclusion as burdening the businesses and populations of the two countries socially and economically.

Bulgaria’s inclusion was stalled by Austria in December over concerns that the country was “too soft” on irregular migration, reported dpa. New members can only be admitted to the European Union if member states unanimously agree. 

According to the Asylum Information Database (AIDA), the number of migrants entering Bulgaria to get to the EU has been rising since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021. The continued political and economic instability in neighboring Turkey has also contributed to the increase in migrant arrivals. 

The number of asylum applicants in Bulgaria increased from 10,999 in 2021 to 20,407 in 2022, reported AIDA. 

Last February, five people were arrested after police discovered the bodies of 18 Afghan migrants in a truck near the capital Sofia. The truck was reportedly isolated with foil and abandoned near the village of Lokorsko. The victims died of a combination of lack of oxygen in an enclosed space and difficulty breathing as they had been crammed into the truck “like in a tin can,” according to news reports. 

The suspects were charged with involuntary manslaughter, participation in a criminal organization and people trafficking.

In the wake of increased migrant arrivals, Bulgaria has registered a dramatic increase in the number of pushback practices at the country’s southern borders. An estimated 5,268 pushbacks were carried out, affecting a total of 87,647 individuals in 2022according to AIDA. 

Last year, international rights groups Human Rights Watch accused Bulgarian authorities of beating, robbing, stripping and using police dogs to attack Afghan and other asylum seekers and migrants. Authorities reportedly forced the migrants back to Turkey without any formal interview or asylum procedure. HRW called on the EU to stop the dehumanizing pushbacks. 

Source: Info Migrants