by Stacy Topouzova
Over the course of the past two years, there has been an acute focus on the challenges that unaccompanied minors encounter in accessing legal protection in Member States of the European Union. At the gateway of the European Union, in Bulgaria, between 2013 and 2016, there had been a consistent increase in the number of unaccompanied minors applying for international legal protection, including refugee status and humanitarian protection status. The primary agency that holds legal competency to respond, the State Agency for Refugees, registered 2768 unaccompanied minors in 2016 (UNHCR, UNICEF & IOM 2017).
According to the Law on the Asylum and the Refugees (LAR), the centrepiece of the Bulgarian asylum legal regime, when identified, an unaccompanied minor can be accommodated with ‘family members, a foster family, or a specialized institution in accordance with the Law of the Protection of the Child’. In addition, the LAR stipulates that when considering where to accommodate the unaccompanied minor, ‘as much as possible, they are accommodated with siblings’. This means that once identified, unaccompanied minors can be accommodated in a refugee registration and reception centre run by the State Agency for Refugees, a foster home run by a municipality, an orphanage run by a municipality, or in any other specialised institution run by the Child Protection Agency. In practice, however, this array of accommodation options, paradoxically, renders significant challenges for unaccompanied minors to access refugee status determination procedures and ultimately, international legal protection.
Accommodation in Refugee Registration and Reception Centres
From the outset, there are no standardised preliminary screening procedures by which members of the State Agency for Refugees can identify unaccompanied minors before initiating the refugee status determination process. As such, unaccompanied minors are accommodated by members of the State Agency for Refugees in one of four refugee registration and reception centres in the country alongside all other asylum seekers who are awaiting refugee status determination procedures.
In these reception centres, social workers from international organisations work closely with the residents and may be able to identify unaccompanied minors. However, these screenings are undertaken on an ad-hoc basis in consideration of the operations of the organisations that work in the centres. In many instances, social workers from these organisations conduct preliminary needs assessments with the unaccompanied minors and use the information collected to advocate that the State Agency for Refugees undertake specific measures that ensure ‘the best interests’ of the minor. For example, with the assistance of social workers from Doctors of the World in February 2017, unaccompanied minors who were intercepted at the Bulgarian-Turkish border were accommodated in children’s homes in Varna.
This means that in practice, unaccompanied minors, if identified, can be accommodated in disparate institutions across the country.
In other instances, however, unaccompanied minors may be identified by a registrar from the State Agency for Refugees, who initiates the refugee status determination procedure by registering the unaccompanied minor’s claim for legal protection. During the registration of the claim, the registrar can also advocate that the State Agency for Refugees accommodate the unaccompanied minor in keeping with the legal provisions, with family members, a foster family, or a specialised institution in accordance with the Law of the Protection of the Child. In practice then, both members of international organisations and members of the State Agency for Refugees can recommend for an unaccompanied minor to be accommodated outside the refugee registration and reception centre. According to the State Agency for Refugees, 450 unaccompanied minors were accommodated in orphanages and children’s homes in 2016 while awaiting refugee status determination procedures. This means that in practice, unaccompanied minors, if identified, can be accommodated in disparate institutions across the country.
Barriers to Refugee Status Determination Procedures
When accommodated outside the refugee registration and reception centres, however, a significant challenge emerges as members of the State Agency for Refugees report difficulties in communicating information concerning the refugee status determination process through the bureaucracy of the institution in which the unaccompanied minor is accommodated. Equally, they report not being able to visit unaccompanied minors who are accommodated in specialised homes or orphanages. Thus, paradoxically, the legal provisions within the Law on the Asylum and the Refugees that entrench a variety of accommodation options for unaccompanied minors pose significant challenges to members of the State Agency for Refugees in conducting refugee status determination procedures and in keeping with children’s ‘best interests’.
Stacy Topouzova is a PhD candidate in her final year at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford. Since 2014, she has examined how status determination procedures are conducted in practice in Bulgaria. She is currently the country researcher for Bulgaria at the International Centre for Migration Policy Development and has previously worked at the International Migration Institute, the Refugee Studies Centre, and the Centre for Peace and Security Studies.
The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of OxMo.
EUROSTAT (2017) Asylum Applicants Considered to be Unaccompanied Minors, News release, 8-11 May 2017.
POBJOY, J. (2017) The Child in International Refugee Law, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
STATE AGENCY FOR REFUGEES (2018) ‘Spravka’ (online). Available from: <http://www.aref.government.bg/index.php/bg/aktualna-informacia-i-spravki> (Accessed?).
UNHCR, UNICEF & IOM (2017) Refugee and Migrant Children — Including Unaccompanied and Separated Children in Europe — Overview of Trends 2016, April 2017.
 According to EUROSTAT (2017), in 2016, 63 300 unaccompanied minors applied for legal protection.
 Article 29 of The Law on the Asylum and the Refugees.
 Article 29 of The Law on the Asylum and the Refugees.
 The largest refugee registration and reception centre, Harmanli, is located near the southern Bulgarian-Turkish border, while the remaining three are located in or near the capital, Sofia.
 The statistics are published by the State Agency for Refugees: http://www.aref.government.bg/index.php/bg/aktualna-informacia-i-spravki.
 The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 3. It has been argued that the intersection of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the United Nations Refugee Convention and Optional Protocol (UNRC) constitutes a significant affirmation of the rights of unaccompanied minors seeking legal protection. The intersection between The Convention on the Rights of the Child and The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is examined in the work of Pobjoy (2017).