Christof is a 55-year old man. He is a stateless person from former Yugoslavia, but in his removal and detention orders he has been registered as a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
‘All I’ve ever had was a birth certificate. I’ve not had much else in life.’ ‘All I want is to live another day. There is nothing else there for me’.
Christof left his country of origin in 1992 after his wife and two young children were killed in the Bosnian war (1992-1995). He shows us the scars of bullet wounds on his legs.
‘I don’t know why I have to live a life like this’.
In 1992, he crossed the border into Bulgaria on foot without being stopped or questioned by anyone. He has been living in Bulgaria for 24 years, speaks Bulgarian, and feels well integrated in local society. Christof does not have any contact with his country of origin.
‘I have been living in Bulgaria for 24 years. My greatest fear is that I am going to be expelled. I cannot start building a new life all over again. I am too old for that. I would like to become a Bulgarian citizen. I am talking 24 years, not a few hours or months — years. ‘
Christof was detained and sent to the Busmantsi Special Detention Centre for Foreign Nationals (SCTAF) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs where he spent 4 months from 4 December 2015 until 4 April 2016.
‘In Bulgaria, he has had ‘his own home’ and ‘has worked for a living’, ‘has felt like a Bulgarian’. His detention recalls the worst moments in his biography and is experienced by him as repeated traumatization’.
Christof has health problems relating to high blood pressure, which took a turn for the worse while he was in detention:
‘I feel a tightness in the heart area. I have high blood pressure. We are not allowed to go out for a breath of fresh air. I wish they would treat the elderly here like human beings. There are many good persons here, and then there are many of those who are thoroughly bad’.
Christof was initially arrested for 24 hours on 3 December 2015 on ground of Article 72(1)(4) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Act as a ‘person whose identity cannot be established’. The declaration enclosed to the arrest order contains an explicit mention of Christof’s health condition (high blood pressure). On the following day, orders for his removal and immigration detention were issued. Immigration detention was ordered ‘on account of the person having entered illegally into Bulgaria, without proper documents, and the existing risk of attempting to evade the enforcement of the removal border’. There is no mention of the fact that the illegal entry into Bulgaria occurred 24 years ago nor has any consideration been given to less coercive alternatives to detention.
‘I am not a criminal. I have never done any harm to anyone in my life. I have simply worked to make ends meet’. ‘I want to live as a free individual; to work; to give something back. I don’t want to sit locked up all day and live off the back of others’.
Christof did not manage to submit an appeal against his immigration detention order. He was not informed that he had a right to do so, as well as a right to legal assistance. On being asked about the reasons why he didn’t take advantage of his right to legal counsel, he exclaims:
‘How could one even think that I didn’t want a lawyer? Nobody told me I had the right to one!’
‘Never in my life have I thought that there was such terrible punishment. Evil punishment!’
Approximately a month after being detained Christof was refereed to a lawyer from the Foundation for Access to Rights (FAR) by another detainee. As Christof was detained, gathering the necessary documents and evidence that he had a residence address and finding an individual willing to take on a commitment to his subsistence took nearly two months. Nevertheless, one of Christof’s friends signed the requisite affidavit to which a set of evidence was annexed and the Mayor of the village in which Christof had lived gave him a special recommendation, confirming that there was no risk of him hiding from the authorities. In the meantime, an SCTAF official told Christof that the authorities had failed to find any information that corroborates his citizenship. In response to his application for release dated 7 March 2016, on 4 April 2016 Christof’s detention was replaced by the obligation to report to the local police station once a week.
Christof’s detention is an illustration of the authorities resorting to detention as a first option, without considering other available alternatives, despite the fact that the person had been living in Bulgaria for 24 years; that he had a home and an address; and that he enjoyed the support of his local community.
Since the very beginning of Christof’s detention, there was no reasonable prospect for his removal from Bulgaria as he was a stateless person, i.e. there was no country to which he could be returned. Yet the competent administrative body failed to register him as such and formally entered him into their records as a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The four months, which Christof spent in detention, were neither necessary nor proportionate to the aim sought to be achieved — his return as an illegally residing alien. During our meetings Christof has kept repeating that he is not a criminal. He clearly perceived his detention as a punishment for a crime that the authorities assumed he committed.
‘Here we count the hours, the minutes and even the seconds — it is so hard. Because you are not a criminal’. ‘There’s no forgiveness for the likes of me. Now if I had riches aplenty, it would be a different law, wouldn’t it’.
During the administrative procedure leading up to the issuance of the immigration detention order, the competent body did not give Christof a hearing. Although Christof is fluent in Bulgarian, he was not advised of his right to appeal the order and the possibility for judicial review of the lawfulness of his detention.
Having received legal aid under the HEAR project, Christof succeeded in having his detention replaced by a weekly reporting to the local police station.
Snippets from our conversations with Christof:
– Do you have faith?
– I have faith in God. And in my head and hands.
– What do you dream about?
– I dream of freedom and of having identity papers.
– What would you have changed, if you could?
– The papers. But it all depends on having a permanent job and money. I wouldn’t have had to work for 5-10 levs, but earning a decent salary. But when you have no papers, people would take advantage.
– You have a martenitsa on your wrist.
– Yes, the police women, the lady from the canteen and the lady doctor each gave me one. They are the best.
– How did the detention affect you?
– Badly. Very badly. To be detained in this place means to have died, and when you go out, you are born again.
 The name is fictitious and has been chosen by the interviewee.
 “Special Centre for the Temporary Accommodation of Foreign Nationals”
 Expert report by a psychologist who met Christof at the Detention Centre.
 Article 72(5) of the Implementing Rules of the Foreign Nationals in Bulgaria Act stipulated that ‘a person who has provided a residential address to a foreign national subject to a coercive administrative measure shall draw up the model statement set out in Annex No 7 and provide evidence of having sufficient means to support the illegally residing immigrant in an amount not less than the lowest pension granted on social grounds in Bulgaria’.