The following document details recommendations on how to address and overcome the main issues which the current family reunification system in Bulgaria is facing. The recommendations are developed based on desk research, fieldwork research and experience gained during the provision of legal and financial assistance to beneficiaries as a part of the COMP4SEE project.
The recommendations emphasize on the problems faced by refugees, persons with granted subsidiary protection and temporary protection within the family reunification procedure as per the Law on Asylum and Refugees, which is the main instrument for persons under international and temporary protection to exercise their right to reuniting with their family. The other procedural opportunity is described in detail in the Republic of Bulgaria Act and its Rules for implementation.
POLICY AND LEGISLATOVE SETBACKS
I. Policy issues
Family reunification is not properly acknowledged in the National Strategy on Migration 2021-2025 (“the Strategy”), it is only mentioned in the context of unaccompanied children. This leaves the very basis of the family reunification system rather vague, and it remains unclear what the exact aim of the family reunification system is – uniting families in a sustainable manner with actual integration prospects, assisting persons to flee from warzones or something else. It is crucial to have a clear and positive vision towards family reunification in the Strategy, as this would facilitate the solution for the therefore stemming problems.
Lack of acknowledgement of family reunification and a scarce mention of integration in the Strategy is a predisposition for the absence of any integration scheme for the reunited families envisaged both in the Strategy and on a legislative level. This impedes the opportunity of the family members to be included in the local community in a timely manner, as there are also no integrational measures for the family members after arriving in Bulgaria, such as undergoing an integrational course or a language course. Additionally, the general assumption of the authorities is that Bulgaria plays the role of a “transit country” for refugees, which perception is in prejudice of their attitude of the towards the arriving family members as persons who are not going to integrate either way. At least a minimum of integration measures for the family members who have arrived should be envisaged in the Strategy.
II. Legislative issues
One of the most significant issues is that there is no legal maximum duration set into place for the procedure for approval of a family reunification application, which leads to varying durations for each procedure anywhere between a couple of weeks and months, sometimes even years. This discourages the sponsors and inserts legal insecurity in the effectiveness of the family reunification system. In cases of unaccompanied children there is a massive risk of the child fleeing Bulgaria because they cannot wait as long and try to find a different solution. A precise maximum for the issue of the decision of the State Agency for Refugees on a family reunification application should be included in the family reunification framework.
There is also no detailed scheme for the role of each of the competent institutions (e.g., no details on the role of the State Agency for National Security, the Consular Relations Directorate). This leads to practical problems, where some competent institutions claim that they are not responsible for certain steps of family reunification, when there is no other organ competent to undertake those steps. A clear allocation of responsibilities should be detailed in the Law on Asylum and Refugees regulating family reunification to prevent such misunderstandings.
The allocation of responsibilities can be included in a coordination mechanism, which would not only give structure to the family reunification system. Such a mechanism can also help better the communication between institutions, which are another issue of significance, as its absence leads to the delay of the procedure and to additional hurdles for the sponsor and the family members (e.g. cases in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not aware of an approval for family reunification and as a result no interview for a visa for the family members can be scheduled).
In connection to the allocation of responsibilities it is noteworthy to point out that the State Agency for Refugees is obliged to assist the family members with the issuing of travel documents. Meanwhile there are cases in which the diplomatic missions decline to issue travel documents to persons who have none, and direct them to go back to their country of origin to issue themselves a passport from the country of origin. In cases in which the family members do not have valid travel documents, the diplomatic missions should not send them off, but assist the family members in the issue of a laissez-passer from the Bulgarian authorities (also confirmed by the UNHCR in their most recent recommendations on family reunification ). The diplomatic missions of Bulgaria abroad should also be obliged by the law to assist the family members in the issue of travel documents.
The issuing of the visas and the Bulgarian travel documents is, in itself, very costly – the visa fee for a family member over the age of 6 is 100 euro. If they do not have valid travel documents, the issuing of such costs 120 euro per person regardless of age. These costs are on top of the already expensive travel to Bulgaria from the states where family members come from (Syria, Afghanistan, etc.) Many sponsors resort to asking friends for money or taking bank loans to cover the costs. There should be an option for the persons who do not provide with a sufficient amount of money to be exempt from these charges or pay at a lower cost.
I. Issues relating to the family reunification system as a whole
Мany asylum seekers are not informed of their right to reunify with their family in the first place. This is a task which is in practice implicitly transferred to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In addition to a more substantial inclusion of family reunification in the Strategy, more efforts should be made to make asylum seekers aware of their rights and especially their right to family reunification and legal possibilities in connection thereto. This should be fact when the persons are applying for international protection and when they receive either their approval for international protection or temporary protection. This would be an indicator of a positive attitude change of the authorities towards the family reunification system.
The lack of detail on the family reunification system on a legislative level combined with the complexity of the system from a coordination point of view cause great delays in the execution of the reunification of the families in many of the approved cases. Subsidiary to the legal clarification, trainings and educational materials for the authorities on the legal framework of the family reunification system would be of help for the authorities to better understand the goal of the system and their own responsibilities within it. A basic training should be mandatory to guarantee that these educational materials reach the persons working on field with the sponsor and family members.
Another area of problems of the family reunification system relate to the lack of resources set aside relating to personnel, accomodation and financing. In order to overcome these issues, more strategic planning, risk assesment and forecasts should be made on the migration situation in Bulgaria as a whole and with special regard to the implications it would have on the family reunification system. This process is made even more difficult by the fact that no official statistics of the institutions are made public, the only available statistics are gathered from NGOs through official requests. Official statistics should be published with regard to the reunited families on the territory of Bulgaria and the duration of the procedure in order to keep track of progress made.
II. Issues relating to diplomatic and consulate missions
Communication with the respective diplomatic and consulate missions, who are competent to facilitate the issue of visas and Bulgarian travel documents, is extremely difficult. For instance, experience in practice shows that for family members in Istanbul and Ankara it is extraordinarily challenging to secure a date for the visa interviews and to even access the facilities of the Bulgarian mission. Calls are rarely answered. Some of the responses to calls give the impression that an automated answering machine is speaking rather than a representative at the consulate. Emails are also often left without a response. The representatives of Bulgarian consulates in other states should make sure that they are available in the times published and that all written correspondences are processed in a timely fashion. The Consular Relations Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should facilitate the process of accessibility and ensure that proper efforts on the part of the missions are made to remain available to the public.
The poor communication with refugees and between institutions lead to the same documents being requested from different authorities from the sponsors and the family members on multiple occasions. The communication between institutions should be in practice more active, so that the provision of a document at once is enough for the procedure to continue.
Communication with the embassies is further hindered by the fact that they do not use interpreters when needed to assist the family members in directing their questions to the Bulgarian representatives in rare for Bulgaria languages. This makes the procedure for family members and sponsors who do not speak other languages different from their mother tongue difficult to a great degree, as the consulates require to have all of the documentation from the family members in either Bulgarian or English. Measures should be taken by the consulates in collaboration with the State Agency for Refugees and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure that an interpreter is available, even online, for all relevant issues relating to the language barrier to be overcome.
No clear information is available on the requirements for the family members on the issue of visas and travel documents. Multiple unofficial websites provide various information written in a manner which prevents the beneficiaries of family reunification to clearly understand what is expected from them as further steps and as expenses for the family members to be able to travel. No clear information guides the beneficiaries on where and how the date of the interview should be arranged, which consulate is responsible, when are the admission times, etc. As there are no clear guidelines for the beneficiaries, cases of misguidance from the consulates occur – declining to speak to lawyers of the beneficiaries and making up procedural requirements, which are not published anywhere. For instance, the Bulgarian consulates in Istanbul, Edirne, Bursa and Ankara in Turkey currently require Syrian refugees to have an address registration and a "kimlik" (residence permit) to determine which one of them is competent to accept their visa application. At the same time, the Turkish authorities have long refused to issue a kimlik, and it is virtually impossible for newly arrived Syrian refugees to obtain such a document.
Clear and precise instructions should be published on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the procedure of issuing a visa and travel documents and for the admission times of all of the Bulgarian missions abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should undertake measures to minimize such practices of misguidance and such procedural “creativity”.
The methods of payment also are another limitation. Although multiple bank accounts are available online of Bulgarian diplomatic and consulate missions, some decline payment by bank transfer and accept only cash on desk. In some cases, beneficiaries are directed to pay to third-party intermediaries, who would secure the documents instead of the procedure taking place between the Bulgarian representatives and the family members. This practice leads the family members to fall victim to fraudsters. This not only raises the price for the procedure and predisposes corrupt practices, but also restricts the opportunities for the family members to receive their visas and documents in a timely manner, as usually they do not provide with such money and it is the sponsor who pays. Various payment methods should be available for the issue of a visa and Bulgarian travel documents for all Bulgarian diplomatic missions abroad. These methods should be published in advance on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In cases of multiple bank accounts available for bank transfer, clear instructions should be included on the website on how to do the transfer.
III. Issues relating to the residence of the family members in Bulgaria
Although legally family members have the right to reside in the reception centers of the State Agency for Refugees after they have arrived in Bulgaria, in practise multiple cases arise in which such accomodation is declined to the family members. The arguments of the State Agency are that since one of the requirements to apply for family reunification is presenting a rental contract, the sponsor should be able to provide accomodation for the family. A poor practice has developed in Bulgaria in this regard in which the sponsor sources themselves a fake or invalid contract to be able to start the procedure (as it usually takes long) and to bring their family to a safe place. Once the family arrives, however, they are at risk of homelessness. The State Agency for Refugees should allow all arriving family members to reside in its facilities during their status determination procedure, and only if the family members request, allow them to live outside of those facilities.
Another issue hindering the adequate life of the family members is the settlement of their legal residence. As they have arrived through the request of the sponsor, who has been granted international or temporary protection by Bulgaria, the family members are legally entitled to the same status as the one of the sponsor, meaning that presumably the procedure for granting international protection should be shorter. The family members however must still apply for international protection as all asylum seekers, in many instances of which it takes months for the President of the State Agency for Refugees to issue the approval on their application. This impedes the integration process of the family members and prevents them from taking on a job or furthering their education as fast as possible. The State Agency for Refugees should facilitate the processing of the applications of the family members in a faster way for them to receive the protection status they are entitled to.
IV. Integration of the family members
One of the most beneficial aspects of family reunification is that a whole family can integrate into society together more sustainably rather than the sponsors by themselves. The integration of a reunited family in the Bulgarian society however is not supported in almost any way by the state. The only integration programme envisaged legislatively is the conclusion of contracts between the beneficiaries and municipalities, but only if the municipalities agree. This has been done in a handful of cases relating to relocation of persons as per the European programme for relocation between 2015 and 2017. All other available integration services are a product of the efforts of both national and international organizations and civil society organizations (CSOs).
The inclusion of reunited families as one of the main target groups within the intergration section in the National Strategy on Migration is the first step towards creating an inclusive environment for them. Afterwards a plan should be constructed for what services the state should provide for them or at least make available for them to make use of. The experience of CSOs in this regard would be extremely beneficial for the national and local authorities to start with. Consultations between all relevant stakeholders should take place with reunited families as one of the main target groups in mind.
It has been made evident especially throughout the last year with the unprecedented number of refugees from Ukraine and the increased arrival of Syrian refugees, that the Bulgarian social system has limited resources. To strike a balance between the limited resources and the need for inclusion of the family in the Bulgarian society, integrational courses should be organized.
As work and education are at the core of successful integration, emphasis should be put on vocational training and basic language skills of adults. This should be done through a collaboration between the already experienced NGOs, the State Agency for Refugees and the Regional Employment Offices. The option of a more intensive language training should be available for adults, who wish to further their education. A good example for labor support is the EPIC program in Ireland. It is funded mainly by the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+). It includes modules such as applying for a job, making a CV, identifying your skillset, etc. It has operated for 15 years with an almost 70% success rate.
For children the emphasis should be put on the language learning for them to be able to join the Bulgarian educational system as quick as possible. The collaboration of institutions should be again between experienced NGOs, the State Agency for Refugees and the Regional Educational Offices. A steppingstone for the development of this side of the program can be the already established educational centers created in 2022 for the needs of Ukrainian children. Another good practice to keep in mind is the development of language and teaching materials by the Government of Latvia, which are available for teenagers in all Latvian schools.
SUMMARY OF THE RECOMMENDATIONS:
On a policy level
• Family reunification should be properly acknowledged in the National Strategy on Migration with clear definitions of the goals sought with its implementation;
• The Strategy should include a vision for an integration policy for the arriving family members.
On a legislative level
• A precise maximum duration for the issuing of the decision of the State Agency for Refugees on a family reunification application should be included in the family reunification framework;
• A clear distribution of the responsibilities between the competent institutions should be included in the Law on Asylum and Refugees;
• A coordination mechanism detailing the role and responsibilities of each institution and their collaboration should be produced;
• The diplomatic and consulate missions of Bulgaria abroad should be legally obliged to assist the family members in the issuing of travel documents and visas;
• Exemption or discounts from visa and travel document fees should be made available for refugees with low income.
In general practice
• Asylum seekers should be made aware of their right to family reunification when applying for international protection and when they receive temporary protection;
• The representatives of the competent state organs should undergo mandatory training on their role and responsibilities under the family reunification framework; these trainings should be accompanied with respective educational materials;
• Strategic planning, risk assesment and forecasts should be made on the migration situation in Bulgaria and what its implications on the family reunification system could be;
• Official statistics should be published with regard to the number of reunited families and the duration of the procedure.
Regarding the role of Bulgarian diploamtic and consulate missions abroad
• Bulgarian missions abroad with the support of the Consular Relations Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should make sure that they are accessible in the admission times published and that all written correspondences are processed in a timely manner;
• Communication between the relevant institutions regarding documents already provided by the sponsor or family members should be more active in practice;
• An interpreter should always be available, even online, at/to the Bulgarian consulate missions;
• Clear and precise instructions should be published on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the procedure of issuing a visa and travel documents;
• The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should undertake measures to minimize procedural arbitrariness within the consulate missions in Bulgaria;
• Clear payment methods should be available and made public for the issue of a visa and travel documents for all Bulgarian consulate missions abroad;
Regarding the residence of the family members in Bulgaria
• The State Agency for Refugees should allow all arriving family members to reside in its registration centers during their status determination procedure;
• The State Agency for Refugees should facilitate the processing of the applications of the family members for international protection so as to not make them wait disproportionately long to be able to obtain a decision;
Regarding the integration of the family in Bulgarian society
• Consultations between all relevant stakeholders (state organs, local authorities, experienced CSOs, local communities and international organizations) on the question of most important integration measures;
• An integration programme should be constructed with an emphasys on employment and language learning in collaboration between experineced NGOs, the State Agency for Refugees and state and local authorities; many good practices from other states can be implemented here.
This document has been prepared in implementation of the project "Complementary pathways to Southeastern Europe – COMP4SEE", funded by the European Union’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. The content of this document represents the views of the team of experts at the Foundation for Access to Rights - FAR only and is its sole responsibility. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains..
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