Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza

‘Torchlight, shedding light on the violent opacity of the European border regime’

The first report from Bulgaria by Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche


Since 25 June, the Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche has been present in the south-eastern region of Bulgaria, near the Turkish border, particularly between the towns of Harmanli and Svilengrad.

The Collettivo is an informal group of activists whose triple objective is to actively support people in transit along the Balkan routes, to collect testimonies and produce documentation on police violence at Europe’s borders, and to mobilise civil society on migration issues. In this sense, it has been active in the last three years in Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

The report, entitled ‘Torchlight, shedding light on the violent opacity of the European border regime‘, was written from a solidarian but rigorous point of view, after a two-month stay on Bulgarian territory: the aim is to ‘shed light on’ and denounce the racist violence of the authorities, who daily violate the fundamental rights of people on the move. In the face of the lack of information that characterises the Bulgarian context, the opacity and connivance that cover the actions of both the Bulgarian and European authorities, this writing wants to be a ‘speaking out’, which responds to the pressing need to raise a voice of truth against the lies of the institutions, which are trying to stifle even the ‘unusual and annoying presence’ of the Collettivo.

The information reported is the result of constant collective research work, the testimonies collected come directly from the stories of the people encountered and are reported with respect for their consent and safety. Even though this report focuses on the Bulgarian situation, the Collettivo Rotte Balcaniche emphasises how the practices observed here fit coherently and continuously into the European design ‘on migration and asylum’. The Bulgarian-Turkish border represents at this moment the land gate of Europe, the hottest and most violent land border of the Balkan route.

In addition to providing an overview of the route through Bulgaria, focusing on the main issues of national and European policies on this territory, the report addresses three main topics: living conditions in the Lyubimets detention centre, violence and push-backs 1 on the Bulgarian-Turkish border, and violence on the Bulgarian-Serbian border.

The need to look deeper into the Bulgarian context stems, on the one hand, from the increase in transits observed in 2022, and on the other hand, from the brutal police violence against people in transit, which has already been reported by Human Rights Watch and Lighthouse Reports. Recent statistics released by the General Directorate of Border Police indicate a further intensification of the flows in the summer months of 2023, with a 73% increase in prevented illegal attempts to cross the Turkish-Bulgarian border in June and July, compared to the same months in 2022 (46,940 persons in 2023 and 27,083 in 2022). From 1 January to 7 August 2023, there were, again according to the Border Police, 108,954 illegal crossing attempts stopped, compared to 67,846 in the corresponding period of 2022. Evidently, the increase in crossings and the increase in push-backs go hand in hand: the authorities themselves claim this illegal practice in the media and statistically.

The Lyubimets centre is one of the two detention centres in the country – the other is the Busmantsi one on the outskirts of the capital – where people are systematically detained a priori after entering the country irregularly. In fact, 98% of asylum seekers in Bulgaria are initially detained for a period of 15 to 20 days before being able to apply for asylum 2, a period that can last up to 18 months if the person is deemed ‘repatriable’. The possibility to apply for asylum is subject to constant blackmail and obstruction, including by UNHCR officials, and the accelerated procedures 3 lead to mass denials on the basis of nationality. Moreover, the Iranian and Kurd dissidents fleeing Iranian and Turkish dictatorships face the real risk of deportation, which can mean execution or life imprisonment. In addition to the illegitimacy of these practices, the report also delves into the terrible conditions that characterise this facility, quoting several testimonies of the detainees: ‘Honestly, there cannot be such a place, there is no care, no eating, no washing, nothing’ (Svilengrad, 25/07/2023); ‘They used to lock the doors of the rooms at night, after 11 p.m., saying that anyone who dared to ring the bell to go to the bathroom would have their fingers broken’ (Harmanli, 25/07/2023); ‘They used to put 4- and 5-year-old children with us, in the adults’ rooms, and this is not acceptable. They were shouting at us, insulting us and hitting us’ (Harmanli, 25/07/2023).

The third and fourth sections address the issue of police violence on the Bulgarian-Turkish and Serbian-Bulgarian borders. On the two borders, the behaviour of the Bulgarian Border Police follows very similar patterns, although in the former case it almost always leads to refoulement to Turkish territory, while in the latter it leads to detention or return to open camps. The areas where this violence is perpetrated on a daily basis are around the Kalotina border crossing in the north and in the large southern border region between Lesovo and Malko Tarnovo. In both contexts, the violence is never episodic but systematic. The method of action of the Bulgarian Border Police involves forcing people to undress and beating them with baseball bats, even for over an hour. Trained dogs are used to bite, firearms are used to intimidate and sometimes directly against people – as confirmed by the case of Abdullah El Rustum Mohammed -, telephones are stolen or broken, as well as money, credit cards and good clothes. Below are some exemplary excerpts:

“We entered Bulgarian land and walked for about six days, through mountainous and rough roads, very difficult and dangerous, and we did the road at night. We were surprised by the police dogs, of which there were three, and the dogs attacked us, they attacked us one by one. They attacked us forcefully and harshly and then starved us in a truck with ‘Border Police’ written on it. They also beat us before taking us out of the net […]” (Svilengrad, 02/08/23)

“We left the Harmanli camp to reach Serbia […] To do the last stretch we got on the train, to go to the Kalotina crossing. As soon as we got off the train, we were met by three Border Police guards with dogs. They stopped us and ordered us to stay on the ground with our hands behind our heads. They shouted at us to be quiet and as they did so they released the dogs who bit us on the legs and hips. This lasted for a few minutes and then they loaded us into a van and took us to a border police station. In this station there were other policemen who started insulting us. In this place they kicked us, laughed and told us to be quiet and not to speak for any reason. This lasted 4 hours […].” (Harmanli, 02/08/2023)

Some accounts reported the involvement of Frontex agents in the operations – along with Border Police and army teams: ‘Bulgarian police wore green uniforms, while German police wore blue uniforms’ (Harmanli, 27/07/23). The collective was able to verify the presence of Frontex in the Sredets Border Police station, the epicentre of capture and push-back operations, along with local police and military personnel who worked wearing typical extreme right-wing T-shirts, including one from Predappio, with the fascio littorio drawn on it.

The activists emphasise that this first publication does not claim to be exhaustive, but tries to compose the complex mosaic faced by those who, crossing increasingly closed borders, challenge the European border regime, starting from the self-narratives of people on the move themselves. In this sense, they refer to subsequent publications for a more in-depth analysis of issues only mentioned here, such as the living conditions in the open camps, the omissions and lies of the authorities in the ‘search and rescue operations’ 4, the problem of recognition and repatriation of bodies, the dozens of desaparecidos in the forests of the border.Finally, the Collettivo concludes by returning to the motivations that led to the drafting of this report and to being present on the borders of Europe: “Here, at the extreme border of Europe, we are confronted with powerlessness, in the face of a system of oppression that involves everyone, from the small municipality of Harmanli to the European Commission, from the individual border police man to the director of Frontex. In the light of this, this present report – like our presence on the borders – is meant to be a seed. Indeed, we are driven by the awareness that it is only in a multiplicity of people and possible practices that we can dismantle this impotence and, by using solidarity as our weapon and recognising the radicality of freedom of movement struggles, open breaches in the barbed wires of fortress Europe.”

  1. According to the EU itself, ‘Push-backs (or rejections) refers to the various measures taken by states which result in migrants, including applicants for international protection, being summarily forced back to the country from where they attempted to cross or have crossed an international border without access to international protection or asylum procedures or denied of any individual assessment on their protection needs which may lead to a violation of the principle of non-refoulement.’
  2. Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Human Rights in Bulgaria in 2022, p. 91
  3. A practice encouraged by von der Leyen herself in her policy letter of 20 March 2023.
  4. The Collective is also engaged in responding to numerous reports of people on the move who are unable to continue their journey and are in a critical medical condition, stranded in the forests along the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Two reports of SAR (search and rescue) operations have already been published in Melting Pot Europe, and are available in Italian and English at the  following links:,