In 1994, Oladotun Oluwapelumi moved from Nigeria to Bulgaria with his mother to join his father, who was in college there. They were granted long-term residence permits and became productive citizens. Ola began attending school while his father owned and ran a translation company. Ola’s father later died unexpectedly, his mother returned to Nigeria, and Ola couldn’t afford to renew his residency license. In 2006, he was arrested by police for not having an ID card and spent 16 months in the Special Home for Temporary Placement of Foreigners in Sofia’s Bousmantsi despite not having committed any crime besides residing in Bulgaria—his home for 12 years—illegally.
Bulgaria’s “special homes” are essentially prisons for immigrants. The official purpose of these centers—one in Bousmantsi and another in Lyubimets, which together can house 700 people—is to detain illegal immigrants until they can be deported, but many long-term inmates are refugees seeking asylum who have gotten caught in the system. Often, immigrants apprehended on the border are brought to these facilities, which are guarded with barbed wire, heavy iron gates, and security cameras. They typically do not receive much in the form of legal aid once inside.
If refugees go through the proper channels, they can wind up living in government-administered buildings that they can enter and leave freely until their request for asylum is processed. This route, however, is hardly ever successful. In 2011, only ten out of 890 asylum-seekers received refugee status. More often, people fleeing from Africa or the Middle East are detained at the border and sent to Bousmantsi, even if they claim to be seeking asylum. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee said that 63 percent of asylum seekers in 2011 were charged with a crime for crossing the border illegally, a violation of both the Geneva Conventions and Bulgarian law.
Applying for asylum while in detention can be a long, arduous process, and people can be stuck in custody for up to 18 months. This has led to protests against the way immigrants are treated both inside and outside detention centers; earlier this year, a Moroccan inmate set fire to a mattress in response to his application being delayed.
Not all asylum seekers are actually fleeing political persecution, of course—some in the detention centers are just looking for a better life and apply for refugee status in attempts to evade prison. But as Ola’s case shows, some inmates are victims of circumstance who were previously legal residents of Bulgaria.
Ola was released in 2008 after claiming he was gay and would be persecuted if he returned to Nigeria, which persuaded authorities to finally process his application. He’s now 24 years old, broke, and waiting to see if he will be granted permanent resident status. He still doesn’t have an ID card and can’t legally obtain one, so he can’t work. All he has is a “Registration Card for a Foreigner” that lets him live in the country.
“I just have this card so they can see I exist,” he said. “Legally, though, I don’t exist.”
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