Bulgarian police accused of shooting Syrian in chest at Turkish border

It is illegal for an EU country to deny migrants the opportunity to claim asylum

A migrant next to the wall of the Harmanli migrant processing camp, Bulgaria's largest. Getty
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A Syrian man is recovering after he was allegedly shot in the chest by Bulgarian police as he tried to enter the EU to request asylum.

Footage from October 3 uncovered in an investigation by Lighthouse Reports shows shots being fired in a wooded area close to a fence before Syrian citizen Abdullah Mohammed falls to the ground, clutching his chest and bleeding from the mouth.

Mr Mohammed, 19, was quickly surrounded by a group of men screaming in Arabic that he had been wounded. They then carried him away.

Lighthouse Reports claims that this is the first footage of a refugee being shot at a European border. The incident raises questions about the EU's approach to migration.

Speaking from Istanbul, Mr Mohammed said in an interview that it was obvious the shooter intended to kill him. “The distance between him and I was really short, I would say 10 to 15 metres,” he said. “He shot to kill.”

A medical report states that a bullet passed through his hand and entered his chest before stopping just 1cm from his heart.

The Bulgarian government denied the allegations, arguing that service members guarding the border strictly followed international and domestic laws.

Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev reject the claims and questioned why foreign media have reported more frequently lately about migration across the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

“There are no cases of violence against migrants,” Mr Demerdzhiev said.

“Just recently, an incident that we have been investigating for a long time with our Turkish colleagues has become public.

“There are clear conclusions from both sides that there is no evidence that a shot has been fired by a Bulgarian border policeman and that no active actions have been taken to violate anyone’s human rights."

He said border officers recently have faced more aggression from people trying to enter Bulgaria without authorisation, including some who used stones and knives.

“If anyone expects that the Bulgarian police will not respond to such actions, they are wrong,” Mr Demerdzhiev said.

But witness accounts and forensic evidence, gathered by the Lighthouse Reports and several European media outlets that partnered with the Netherlands-based investigative collective, indicated that the shots came from where the Bulgarian guards were standing.

Before being shot, Mr Abdullah had allegedly entered Bulgaria illegally with a group of about 20 other Syrians, with the intention of claiming asylum in the EU.

After walking for six hours, he and the others were forcibly taken back by Bulgarian police to the other side of the border, in Turkey. The men started to protest and throw stones at Bulgarian security forces.

Then Mr Abdullah was shot and he fell to the ground. Analysis from an independent expert commissioned by the joint investigation indicated that the shots came from the Bulgarian side of the border.

The Bulgarian Interior Ministry said that a border policeman was injured by a stone, according to Sky News, which took part in the investigation.

Sky News travelled to the area of the incident and met other Syrians trying to cross into Bulgaria. A 15-year-old showed scars from a beating he claimed came from Bulgarian police.

“They released dogs on us and then sent us back naked just wearing shorts,” he said.

It is illegal for EU countries to push back migrants before giving them the chance to claim asylum.

The European Court of Human Rights in 2021 ruled that Bulgaria’s pushback practices violated human rights.

Along with Romania and Croatia, Bulgaria hopes to join the Schengen area, a free-travel area that includes 22 EU countries.

On November 16, the European Commission called on the Council to allow the three countries into the Schengen area without any further delay and stated that Bulgaria had demonstrated it had the necessary structures in place to guarantee access to international protection.

Anitta Hipper, the EU Commission spokeswoman for home affairs, told Sky News that allegations of violence are meant to be investigated by national authorities.

Bulgaria has deployed 350 troops and 40 army vehicles along its southern border with Turkey to help border police deal with a growing migrant influx.

A Bulgarian police officer was shot dead at the border with Turkey this month. The perpetrator has yet to be found.

The Balkan country is on a major route for migrants from the Middle East to Europe. Most of them use Bulgaria as a transit corridor on their way westward.

The more than decade-old civil war in Syria has wound down but activists claim returning refugees face grave abuse, including extrajudicial killings, torture and kidnapping, despite security clearances from the Syrian government.

Updated: December 06, 2022, 12:52 PM