ISTANBUL -- Bulgaria has forced at least 43 asylum-seeking Syrians back over the border to Turkey in the past month, violating international law, Human Rights Watch said Thursday. Some of the refugees, including families with small children, were beaten and robbed by authorities.
The claim, backed up by testimony from Syrian refugees, mirrors a comprehensive report released by the group in April that details routine abuse by Bulgarian border guards. Thousands of Syrians desperately seeking asylum in Europe have made the journey across Turkey's border to Bulgaria since the Syrian war began over three years ago.
"Shoving people back across the border to Turkey before their protection claims are considered violates Bulgaria's obligations under domestic and international law," Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The WorldPost. "These people have the right to seek asylum and a right to have protection claims considered."
Syrian men, women and children attempting to make the journey from Turkey to Bulgaria are often met with hostility and violence.
"The police officers who caught us started beating us with batons, their fists and their boots," a 19-year-old Syrian man told Human Rights Watch. "They stepped on us and they made us lie on the ground with our faces down. Reinforcements arrived and dragged us to the Turkish side and made us walk away."
Over 11,000 people -- many of them Syrians -- applied for asylum in Bulgaria in 2013, far less than did so with Syria's neighbors, who have taken in over 3 million Syrian refugees. The United Nations has urged European countries to take on a greater role in assisting Syrian refugees, in an attempt to alleviate Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, where most of Syria's refugees have fled.
But Bulgaria says it cannot support the number of desperate Syrians and other refugees who have crossed its border. The Interior Ministry's chief secretary, Svetoslav Lazarov, has said Bulgaria is now debating whether to extend its already 80-mile-long border fence.
"Our country has enough border points and those who want to come as a refugee can go through them," Lazarov said, according to Reuters.
If Bulgaria extends its border fence, refugees would be forced to take different, far more dangerous routes to get to Europe, Gall warns. Such routes include boat trips from Turkey, or ports in Egypt and Libya, to southern Europe.
Just this week, human traffickers rammed a vessel off the coast of Malta carrying 500 Syrians, Palestinians, Sudanese and Egyptians. Nearly all are feared dead. Thousands have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year making similar trips.
Syrian refugees in Turkey interviewed by The WorldPost have said these boat trips, while immensely dangerous, are their only hope for a better life in Europe.