Abdul Bashir was resting when the police dogs came. He and 11 others were in the dense mountainous forest that joins Turkey and Bulgaria. They had just crossed to the Bulgarian side, for the second time in a month, stepping over the low-hanging wire that divides the two countries. The dogs came out of the woods behind them. Abdul Bashir saw one attack a man in his group, biting his shoulder and dragging him across the ground. The man was bleeding.
The Bulgarian border police arrived soon after the dogs. They ordered the refugees to keep their heads down. Then Abdul Bashir felt police kicking him and striking him on the back, head, and legs with batons and “something with electricity.” The police took the refugees’ money and cellphones before bringing them back to the border fence, where they beat and chased them some more. One of the border guards told the asylum seekers: “Don’t come again.” Then the police opened the gate and pushed the group through, back to Turkey.
Tall and skinny with dark wispy hair, Abdul Bashir told me his story as we sat on a cold, concrete wall outside one of three refugee centers in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. He curled up in a ball when he talked about the beatings. He had a far-off stare.
The first time he had tried and failed to cross the Bulgarian border with the same smuggler, he had been comparatively lucky: The police didn’t steal his money or phone. They only hit him once. He returned a week later, with a smaller group. This was when the police dogs found him. The exhausted refugees passed that night sleeping in the Turkish woods — it was early summer, still warm enough to do so — before making the three-hour drive back east to Istanbul. And then, two weeks later, the group returned to the border with the same smuggler and passed through the same woods from Turkey into Bulgaria, this time without a problem. What had changed?
What might have looked to Abdul Bashir like the luck of the draw was actually the outcome of systematic abuses. Abdul Bashir’s story matches those of numerous other refugees, as well as nongovernmental organizations, the European Union’s border agency, and sources on the border, including a Bulgarian border police translator and smugglers who work the route. Bulgaria’s border police are engaged in a game of questionable legality, both when they force asylum seekers out and when they let them in. They routinely use violence — not only to send particular asylum seekers away, but to make sure that the larger stream of refugees turns elsewhere. Unless the refugees pay.
“Passengers” were what Amin Asif called the people he smuggled across the Turkish-Bulgarian border. He and his coworker Abdullah gave only their first names for fear of repercussions from the police. Both men were from Afghanistan. They told me they had been working as smugglers on this border for years, living between Istanbul and Edirne, a city in northwest Turkey that is a 10-minute drive from the land borders with both Bulgaria and Greece. Amin Asif spoke Turkish fluently. Abdullah was still learning — he hadn’t been in the business as long. I met the two in an empty plaza in the center of Edirne, surrounded by vacant cafe tables and protected from the street by a low vine-covered fence. Two of their associates joined us: an older, bespectacled Turkish man who constantly spoke on his phone, and a bald, late-20s former Afghan soldier. The former was the smugglers’ liaison with the Bulgarian police, and the latter, their muscle.
Amin Asif detailed his last operation, in early September, when he had no trouble getting a large group of passengers over the border. He brought the group to a designated point, and from there, he explained, “The policemen collected these passengers, and they sent them to Sofia.”
Amin Asif and Abdullah described their business in meticulous detail. Both showed me text message exchanges with people they said were Bulgarian border police officers, negotiating the size of a group and the price to pay. The most recent conversation: 15 passengers, 1,400 euros ($1,561) for the group. And then, finally: a time and a location pin via Google Maps. Bulgarian police, the smugglers said, would tell them to meet at a certain mile marker along the border. The smugglers called these mile markers “rocks.” Then, both said, the security cameras would be turned off, or pointed away from the group, and the gate in the border fence would swing open. No money would change hands there — Amin Asif said he transferred money to the police separately.
“You have to bring passengers to the rocks and leave them there,” Amin Asif explained. “Police come and open the doors, point and shout [at] them: ‘Come on!’”
Abdullah recounted similar operations at the unfenced part of the border. Once he reached the Bulgarian side, he said, “I see [the police], I take them just up to the border. They take the passengers and put them into a jeep and take them.”
The land border between Bulgaria and Turkey is about 160 miles long, and currently only the western half of it is fenced. This side consists of rolling, arid farmland. The unfenced, eastern part spans nearly 50 miles of low, forested mountains whose thick, tall trees are intercut with winding trails. Refugees and smugglers call this “the jungle.”
Sometimes, the smugglers explained, groups of refugees would try to cross through the jungle without paying the police. Sometimes, the smugglers would deliberately not pay, having kept the passengers’ money for themselves. If the passengers were caught crossing without paying, they said, Bulgarian police would always return the group to Turkey, often violently.
That, the two smugglers said, was official policy.
Majd Algafari, a former translator for the Bulgarian border police, saw this business up close, from the other side. When I met him in a busy cafe in Sofia, he not only confirmed the smugglers’ account but supplied further detail. Unpaid refugee groups would be turned back to Turkey, and in many cases, beaten hard.
“The worst beatings are in the region of Malko Tarnovo,” he said, referring to a Bulgarian village in the middle of the jungle, just next to the border. “Aside from the beatings, they also use police dogs on the migrants.”
Algafari grew up in Bulgaria with one Syrian parent and one Bulgarian parent. He had worked for nearly two decades as a translator for various Bulgarian security institutions, including, in 2013 and 2014, the border police in Elhovo, a small town halfway along the fenced, western part of the border. During that time, every interaction with people who required translators and had crossed the border illegally was routed through his team.
Algafari told me he was troubled by the violence and corruption he saw in this job. He tried to raise the matter with his superiors, then with the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office, and finally with the Ministry of Interior. But he said his plaints fell on deaf ears, so he had decided to tell his story publicly.
In Bulgaria, police involvement in smuggling is called the “police channel.” Algafari told me the police channel began in 2014. “Initially, when we began asking the migrants and documenting how much money they had paid the smugglers, how much cash they were carrying, the border police started noticing that there was a lot of money involved,” Algafari explained. “Which made them think ‘Hell, I should get on board with this business.’”
Algafari described the same procedure the smugglers outlined. “Depending on where the particular border agent accepting the bribe finds himself, he texts the smuggler in Turkey on a phone given to him by the smugglers,” Algafari said. “He’s not using his personal phone for this. He sends the information about the location and the time — let’s say, that a certain border location will be open between 7 and 7:10 p.m. today.”
Then, he explained, the cameras on the border, which are moveable, literally look the other way. If there is a fence, Bulgarian police open the door. And the passengers cross without a problem. But when the Bulgarian police find a group that hasn’t paid, Algafari explained, the police “take everything from them.” They take money, valuables, and, he added: “They take their phones, so they can’t call 112 [911 in Europe] after the police beat them up.”
According to Algafari, Bulgaria has made an unofficial but systematic policy of summary deportations, also known as pushbacks, in which people who have successfully crossed into Bulgarian territory are forced back to Turkey with neither a deportation hearing nor a chance to apply for asylum. International law forbids this practice. The violence of the deportations, like the corruption, is pervasive, Algafari noted.
Krassimir Kanev, chair of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, agreed with this assessment. The BHC is one of the only human rights organizations working on border issues in Bulgaria, and it regularly interviews asylum seekers in the country’s migration detention centers, as well as its open refugee centers, where those who have applied for asylum await approval.
“We’ve documented many allegations of pushbacks — dozens per month. And almost all of those who are pushed back to Turkey report some form of violence or mistreatment,” explained Kanev. According to the refugees Kanev’s organization has interviewed, the Bulgarian police habitually beat, kick, and strike asylum seekers with batons as they expel them from Bulgarian territory.
Aid workers from other nonprofits and international organizations operating in Bulgaria confirmed these allegations. But none besides BHC was willing to go on the record, for fear of losing funding or access to refugee centers, or of souring relations with the government. For the BHC, Kanev said, the picture was clear.
“We have medically certified some of these cases,” he said, explaining that doctors had confirmed that certain refugees’ wounds were consistent with their accounts of mistreatment. “This is a systemic issue.”
About a mile into Turkey from the border fence is a small town called Uzgaç, surrounded by farmland. Uzgaç is home to some 60 families, a mosque, and a bar. Its main road splits two rows of disheveled houses, farm animals, and assorted plastic trash. Looming above this street is an oversized security camera, so high-tech that it looks out of place, mounted to face the entrance of town. Locals joke about the camera, wondering out loud if it is for the Turkish police to see when refugees come, or for the smugglers to see when the police come. Either way, the residents of Uzgaç have witnessed the effects of the cross-border business firsthand.
Maria Cheresheva is a Bulgarian journalist who has investigated violent pushbacks by the Bulgarian border police. Cheresheva came to Uzgaç last year to look into the case of three Iraqi Yazidi men who, after trying to cross the border, were allegedly beaten by the Bulgarian police and sent back across by foot. It was late winter, and Cheresheva learned that a Turkish autopsy report had concluded that two of the men had frozen to death and the bodies showed signs of battery. One of the men had sustained a serious leg injury. Residents of Uzgaç eventually found their bodies and carried them to town. The third Yazidi man had survived the beating and was in an intensive care unit in Turkey until he was deported to Iraq.
Cheresheva was struck by the consistency of the villagers’ stories. The townspeople told her that it was not uncommon for them to encounter refugees who had been beaten — people who were half-frozen, or even dead.
Majd Algafari, the former border police translator, confirmed that in many cases, the people being pushed back were left in life-threatening circumstances. He told me that sometimes, after taking the refugees’ food, water, and cellphones (and thus their access to GPS), the Bulgarian police drove them to the eastern, mountainous part of the border and pushed them back to Turkey.
“Despite the fact that it’s winter, that the snow is up to your knees, we won’t let them in, and we return them,” said Algafari. People might die of exposure as a result. “Nobody cares,” he said. “There is an order not to let anyone through.”
This order is not on the books, Algafari said, but it has been issued orally to the border police. The brutality is meant to deter further refugees from attempting to enter the country. Anecdotal information travels fast along migration routes, and if people know that Bulgaria is a dangerous route, they might go through another country instead. While in Uzgaç last year, Maria Cheresheva spoke to a Syrian Kudish man who said that he and his group had wanted to surrender to the Bulgarian police and request asylum as refugees. But whenever they tried to speak, the police beat them harder. The man told Cheresheva that he now saw Bulgaria as more dangerous for him than Syria.
That perception is deliberate, Algafari insisted. “There is an oral order from above not to let a single migrant through.”
The Bulgarian Interior Ministry knows it has a problem with police corruption on the Turkish border. In Sofia, I met with Deputy Interior Minister Philip Gounev, who is the highest ranking governmental official in charge of border issues. He speculated that between 10 and 20 percent of the border police could be involved in the police channel, but he said his ministry has had limited time and resources with which to fight the problem.
“When you have 2,000 police officers and one investigation of two or three officers takes you three, four, five months, you can imagine the amount of effort you may need to get to all 10 to 20 percent,” he explained. “I would need years to clean that up.”
What Bulgaria has done instead is appeal to the European Union, whose border agency, called Frontex, theoretically operates in Bulgaria to monitor the border, but in actuality, also monitors the police. In recent months Bulgaria has requested 300 more Frontex officers to cover the border. Gounev conceded that this request was at least partly an effort to limit the police channel and to keep his own border guards in line.
“Partially, [Frontex] has a disciplining effect,” said Gounev. “These integrated surveillance systems that we have, they have an anti-corruption effect, as they record the officers 24 hours.”
Amin Asif, the smuggler in Edirne, agreed with Gounev. He and other smugglers in the area refer to Frontex officers as “the German police,” because many come from Germany and other countries in northern Europe. “When the German police are there, there’s no business,” he said. The Bulgarian police tended to rebuff Amin Asif’s calls when Frontex was on the scene, saying, as he put it, “‘We have some problems, don’t call me. Today we cannot do this.’”
“When Frontex is there, the Bulgarian border police are scared to run its side business openly,” Algafari explained. And so they shift the channel: “For example, if Frontex shows up at Elhovo, the border police redirect the channel through Malko Tarnovo, and vice versa,” he said.
Frontex has been providing technical and logistical support to Bulgarian border police since 2006. Its officers sometimes patrol the border side by side with their Bulgarian counterparts. But they have stepped up their presence this year, because ever since the European Union-Turkey deal drastically reduced the number of refugees going from Turkey to Greece by sea, Bulgaria has been under increased scrutiny as the next major route into Europe.
According to internal Frontex documents, the Bulgarian border police are supposed to report instances of police misconduct to Frontex as part of their joint operations. But that hardly ever happens. Still, Frontex has received information about alleged abuses by other means, including interviews with refugees and reports from border police in neighboring countries. A collection of Frontex incident reports, meant to be redacted but inadvertently released in full earlier this year in response to a freedom of information request, document multiple alleged cases of summary deportations, bribery, and abuse by Bulgarian police.
Still, Frontex has no mandate to investigate such abuses when they are committed by national police forces, a Frontex spokesperson told me. This did not change when, in response to the pressure on Europe’s southern borders, the agency announced a dramatic expansion of its capacities on October 6. Even with the new mandate, the spokesperson said, Frontex is required to collect intelligence about the situation on Europe’s borders, but not to act on what it learns.
Gounev told me the corruption runs to the upper echelons of Bulgaria’s border operation. He cited a case from last February, in which those arrested on smuggling charges included officers charged with investigating illicit cross-border activity. In that case, Gounev said, “the very people who were supposed to investigate migrant smuggling were involved in migrant smuggling as well.”
But Gounev’s problem was not with Bulgaria’s policy of violent summary deportation. It was with the tendency of border police to subvert that policy by letting people cross illegally, for a bribe. So even as Gounev lamented the corruption, he excused the harsh treatment of asylum seekers. “The arrests when it happens at the green border, there is a use of force, almost always,” he explained, referring to the part of the border outside the official checkpoints. “Dogs are used to find the trail” of the migrants, Gounev said, “but they are also used to attack them.” Of the baton beatings to the heads, backs, and legs of refugees, Gounev said, “Again, that’s standard police.”
Moreover, Gounev admitted that it is practically impossible for a person to apply for asylum at Bulgaria’s official border crossings. As per deals with the Turkish government, Turkish border guards will not let asylum seekers through the Turkish exit crossing, which means they cannot apply at the Bulgarian entrance. In practically the same breath, Gounev stated that it is Bulgarian policy to reject anybody trying to apply for asylum elsewhere on the border, meaning the parts that lack official crossings.
The policy, he said, is to send them back to Turkey.
When Abdul Bashir started talking about France, he lit up, flashing a wide, private smile. The open migration center in Sofia, where we met, was just a way station. He had always known where he wanted to go.
He had fled his native Afghanistan in 2014, when he was only 16. The Taliban had set fire to his school in Baghlan province, just north of Kabul. He went first to the capital to find work. But he was determined to leave the country. Anything, he reflected, would be better than to starve in Afghanistan. So he found a smuggler to take him into Iran and then Turkey through the mountains. From Kabul through Iran to Istanbul and now Bulgaria, he’d had a single destination in mind.
“I’ll go to France. I will study. I will learn things,” he told me in Sofia in September. “Let’s see what happens. I don’t know all the possibilities.” He didn’t speak any French, but he was unfazed: “I will learn it there,” he said. “I will go to college.”
Bulgaria had been the hardest, most dangerous part of his journey so far. “I didn’t know it would be even worse than Asia. It’s a hungry country itself,” he said. Shortly after I met him, Abdul Bashir left Bulgaria for Serbia and onward, he hoped, to France.
Over on the Turkish side of the border, at the table in the empty plaza in Edirne, Amin Asif told me he’d decided to pack up his side of the smuggling business and head for Europe himself. He thought he’d cross easily into Bulgaria. From there, he’d make his way to Italy.
Abdullah planned to stay in the business. Just the night before, he said, a group of his was caught in Bulgaria, just over the border, and pushed back into Turkey. Abdullah said he didn’t know if the Bulgarian police had used force.
Had he paid the police?
“No,” he responded. “Not this time.”
Documents published with this article: