26 / 02 / 2024

“An Open Secret”: How Frontex and the European Commission turned a blind eye to violent pushbacks in Bulgaria’s bid to join Schengen 

Internal documents obtained by Solomon, BIRN, Le Monde and Deutsche Welle reveal aggressive pushbacks, "disappearances" of unaccompanied children, and attacks by guard dogs at the Bulgarian border. The EU is well aware but considers the "excellent results" in Bulgaria’s border management.



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In August 2022, an alarming report from an internal whistleblower landed on the desk of the Frontex Fundamental Rights Office (FRO), the EU border agency’s internal human rights watchdog. 

A Frontex officer, deployed at Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, had, at their own initiative, conducted a fact-finding mission to document the modus operandi of Bulgarian border guards taking part in Frontex operations. The report, obtained by Solomon, BIRN, Le Monde and Deutsche Welle, details a harrowing list of dehumanizing and illegal practices that migrants endure, as they are violently expelled from EU territory.

The internal whistleblower’s report was filed in August 2022.

“They leave them naked and take all their belongings,” the Frontex officer wrote based on conversations with ten Bulgarian border guards during joint shifts. Some migrants were often referred to as “Taliban”. They were bitten by service dogs or shot at with non-lethal and lethal weapons. Others were “forced to swim back to Turkey, even if they do not have the skills or strength to do it,” in temperatures that can reach below zero in winter.

The whistleblower, whose identity remains unknown, alleged that although they are “extremely common,” there are “no traces, recordings or reports made of these interventions.” Moreover, Frontex officers are being intentionally “kept away from the ‘hot’ spots’” where migrants are commonly apprehended and pushed back by local border guards. “They have instructions to not allow Frontex to see anything or they would have to write an official report,” the officer noted.

In a letter seen by Solomon and BIRN, the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior responded to the FRO’s investigation that “no data was found on unethical behavior of the officers.”

Although unable to “corroborate” the whistleblower’s allegations, for the FRO, the Ministry’s denial was far from satisfying. Rather, the officer’s dispatch was part of mounting evidence that left Frontex at risk of becoming implicated in systematic abuses of migrants’ rights at Europe’s borders.

“[Bulgarian border guards] have instructions to not allow Frontex to see anything or they would have to write an official report”

Whistleblower, FRONTEX

Through multiple requests filed under EU Freedom of Information rules, Solomon and partners obtained dozens of internal Frontex and European Commission documents that reveal how evidence of grave and persistent human rights violations by Bulgarian border police officers has been dismissed not only by Bulgarian authorities but swept under the rug by EU officials. 

In the wake of the pushback scandal in Greece which resulted in Leggeri’s departure, evidence uncovered by this investigation reveals Frontex, the EU’s highest-funded agency, still remains unable to guarantee that human rights are upheld in operations the agency is involved in. Meanwhile, Bulgaria has been rewarded, politically and financially, for hardening its border controls at any cost, in a quid-pro-quo for advancing Sofia’s long-standing bid to join the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone.


Ali, a 16-year-old asylum seeker from Syria, revealed to Solomon and BIRN his personal account of unlawful detention and pushback he experienced in late spring of 2022. The unaccompanied minor entered Bulgaria irregularly and went to an open reception center in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, to file a claim for asylum. His intention was to apply for family reunification with his mother and five other siblings, who were left behind in Syria and Lebanon. 

Instead of having his claim administered in the reception center, he was taken to a place that “looked like a prison.” 

Later, during the night, together with around 50 other people, Ali was loaded into border police cars, and driven for over 300 km to Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, without being registered or given any information about their rights to seek asylum. 

“They made us walk to the fence that had cameras on it. After we passed the fence, there was something like a canal (…) and we had to crawl through it. At the same time, they were hitting the people, everyone,” the boy recalled. 

“I had 20 leva (around ten euros) with me and I told them, ‘Take it, take whatever I have, just don’t beat me’. They took everything and hit me on the back, on the head. After that, they threw me in the canal,” Ali added.

The group was told to go back to Turkey and not to return.

A trove of documents obtained by Solomon and BIRN contain multiple ‘serious incident reports’, or SIRs, recorded internally by Frontex’s Fundamental Rights Office up to mid-2023. 

The reports contain graphic details of alleged brutalities committed by Bulgarian officers taking part in Frontex operations. Those include people beaten with sticks, forced to strip naked, theft of belongings, verbal abuse, forced labor, and serious injuries caused by service dogs unleashed upon apprehended migrants, who were subsequently forced to cross back into Turkey.

Evidence of unlawful conduct accumulated has been so compelling that, in an “overview” of SIRs covering 2022 and part of 2023, the FRO, headed by the Swede Jonas Grimheden, considers “established that so-called pusbacks, often involving high levels of violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, are a regular practice by the Bulgarian border police.” 

For Dutch MEP (Greens) Tineke Strik, a lead figure on a European Parliament group tasked with scrutinising Frontex, the findings are not only “shocking” but point to “systematic shortcomings” in the way the border agency operates. “It is astonishing that an EU Agency is still unable to uphold EU law after so many institutional investigations, reports, recommendations and warnings,” Strik told Solomon and BIRN. “This shows that even though the Agency has a new director [Hans Leijtens], problems are far from being solved.” 

Under Joint Operation Terra, launched in early 2022, Frontex has increased the number of border guards, along with patrol vehicles and thermo-vision cameras, to assist Bulgarian authorities in surveillance activities at the country’s Turkish and Serbian borders. In 2022, the Bulgarian government boasted of its success in preventing 160,000 migrants from entering EU territory. Another 165,000 “illegal entry attempts” were prevented by October 2023, according to Bulgaria’s Interior Minister, Kalin Stoyanov. 

“We claim, according to our sources and our regular analysis, that those people have been intercepted inside the country. So we are not talking about prevented entry, but about return, an informal one. We all know what the term is: pushback,” Iliyana Savova, Director of the Refugee and Migrant Programme of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, told Solomon and BIRN. 

According to data produced by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee under a tripartite asylum monitoring and support agreement with the United Nations refugee agency and the Bulgarian border police, 5,268 alleged pushbacks, affecting 87,647 persons, took place in 2022 alone. 

“It is an open secret that people are being pushed back. There are such orders,” а high-level government official, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, admitted to this investigation. 

In a written response to Solomon and BIRN, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior stated that throughout the years only “isolated cases” of pushbacks had been confirmed and each one was investigated. At the same time, it maintained that a large part of the pushback allegations are “unfounded.” 

“The smugglers tell migrants to file alerts in order to compromise the reception system, driven by their willingness to continue their journey to Western Europe – their desired destination,” the Ministry stated.

The Bulgarian Ministry of Interior maintains that a large part of the pushback allegations are “unfounded.”


At his first press conference in January 2023 as Frontex’s newly appointed director, Hans Leijtens promised to “restore trust” of a border agency plunged into a deep crisis of legitimacy that culminated in the resignation of previous Frontex chief, Fabrice Leggeri, in July 2022. Standing alongside Ylva Johannson, the EU Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, he pledged his commitment to “accountability, respect for fundamental rights and transparency.” 

While the agency’s complicity in illegal pushbacks in Greece have continued to be at the forefront of controversy surrounding Frontex, in the months following Leggeri’s departure the head of the Frontex FRO, Jonas Grimheden, became increasingly concerned that Frontex officers deployed in Bulgaria could be “indirectly implicated” in rights violations. 

In early December 2022, Grimheden’s office circulated an alarming report to top echelons inside the agency’s Warsaw headquarters, internal emails reveal. A boy, apprehended by two Frontex officers patrolling a forest along Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, had disappeared without a trace, after he was “handed over” by them to a group of Bulgarian border guards. Following a months-long investigation, the FRO warned that the minor “might have been unlawfully removed and expelled from Bulgarian territory by Bulgarian officers.” 

The child’s fate, Grimheden confirmed to Solomon and BIRN, remains unknown to this day.

In their written responses to FRO investigators, seen by Solomon and BIRN, the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior fully denied that there had been a case of any detained minor in the reported area. However, the FRO was not convinced by the dismissal and flagged the boy’s disappearance directly to Aija Kalnaja, then-temporary Director of Frontex. 

“Shame I missed it earlier, met in the Council the minister [of interior] and I could have raised it. Oh well, it is what it is,” Kalnaja replied, promising to discuss the incident with the then-Chief of Bulgaria’s Border Directorate, Rositsa Dimitrova, instead.

In mid-February 2023, Kalnaja relayed the FRO’s concerns in a formal letter addressed to Dimitrova. Kalnaja called upon Bulgarian authorities to grant the agency’s standing corps access to “first line checks and border surveillance activities”. “There are serious concerns regarding allegations of fundamental rights violations that need to be proactively addressed,” the letter said. 

In response, Dimitrova brushed aside the allegations, assuring her EU colleague that “respect of the fundamental rights of third-country nationals is a top priority.” 

Five border guards have been sanctioned for violating their ethical code of conduct for the first 10 months of 2023, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior said in an answer to Solomon and BIRN.


When Leijtens took over from Kalnaja at the start of March 2023, Grimheden was keen not to let the momentum dissipate. Two days after the Dutchman took up his post in Warsaw, Grimheden’s office drafted a letter for Leijtens “to consider to send, in whole or part” to Dimitrova. 

The letter did not mince words, highlighting “persisting allegations of irregular returns (so-called ‘pushbacks’), accompanied by serious allegations of mistreatment and excessive use of force by national border police against migrants”. It demanded Frontex officers to “be more effectively used” in the areas “where allegations of fundamental rights are reported,” better cooperation with the FRO, as well as independent investigations of rights violations. 

The letter, though, never left Leijtens’ inbox.

The letter, drafted by Grimheden’s office, was never sent.


Instead, the extensive documentary record obtained by Solomon and BIRN indicates that concerns about large-scale ill-treatment of migrants have been swept aside to advance the Commission’s long-standing objective of bringing Bulgaria into the Schengen zone. 

On March 20 2023, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a Pilot Project for “preventing irregular arrivals” and “strengthening border and migration management” including through “accelerated asylum procedures” and speedy deportations of unwanted migrants. The Commission selected two “volunteering” countries for the pilot –  Romania and Bulgaria – both of which have been vying to join Schengen for more than a decade.  

To implement the project, the Commission gave Bulgaria €69.5m in EU funds, while Frontex has deployed additional border guards and surveillance equipment.

“All activities under this pilot,” the Commission stressed in a June 2023 annex to the agreement, “are to be conducted in full respect of EU law and fundamental rights, in particular the principle of non-refoulement.” 

By then, both Frontex and the Commission were intimately aware of the dire human rights record of the Bulgarian border police. In January 2023, several weeks before the pilot was launched, senior European Commission officials, including the director for Schengen affairs inside Ylva Johannson’s department, met with Dimitrova “to discuss the FRO’s concerns as regards allegations of fundamental rights violations.” 

Near the end of the 6-month pilot, and despite “positive” developments regarding Frontex officers’ participation in “front-line land patrolling activities,” Grimheden once again alerted Frontex’ Management Board – the agency’s decision-making body – about “repeated” pushbacks and excessive use of force by Bulgaria’s border police. 

“Yes, we remain concerned and keep stressing this in various ways,” Grimheden told Solomon and BIRN when asked whether the FRO has communicated ongoing concerns about violent pusbacks directly to the Commission.

Asked whether Leijtens had raised any of the FRO’s findings regarding pushbacks with Bulgarian authorities, Frontex’s press office told Solomon and BIRN that direct in-person discussions were deemed more effective” and that it was unable to disclose “specific details of the discussions.” 

Despite Grimheden’s repeated warnings about human rights violations, in public the Commission was delighted with Bulgaria’s performance in the pilot.


“The results are excellent,” Ylva Johansson announced last October. She hailed the Bulgarian authorities’ efforts at preventing “irregular” migrants from entering EU territory in support of the “absolutely necessary decision” of letting Bulgaria join the Schengen bloc. 

In September, during her State of the Union speech, von der Leyen hailed Bulgaria’s role in “leading the way – showcasing best practices on both asylum and returns. So let us finally bring them in – without any further delay.” 

For the past year, Bulgaria’s Schengen bid has been blocked by the Netherlands and Austria, whose conservative government has been demanding tighter controls at the Bulgarian-Turkish land border. 

“We definitely have an order on what needs to be done to be accepted in Schengen. And it is the border which has to be effectively closed. In order to fulfill this order we do whatever it takes, in extreme violation of human rights,” Diana Radoslavova, Director of Center for Legal Aid Voice in Bulgaria, a Sofia-based non profit commented. 

“It is clear that the sole purpose of this Commission is to prevent irregular entrance into the EU, and it is willing to do so at any costs, sacrificing fundamental rights and EU values along the ride,” Tineke Strik, the Dutch MEP, said. “As long as Bulgaria will cooperate on good terms with the protection of borders and implementation of the pilot project, the Commission is happy to sweep allegations under the carpet,” Strik added. 

Asked whether the pilot project was conducted in “full respect” of EU law, a Commission spokesperson stated that the Commission will work with Bulgarian authorities to “further strengthen the existing national independent mechanism to monitor fundamental rights compliance.”  

In December, Bulgaria’s government went one step closer to fulfilling its Schengen bid, after Austria agreed to let Bulgaria and Romania join the travel-free zone by sea and air as of March 31. However, land border controls will remain in place until Austria’s continuing concerns over ‘irregular’ migration are overcome.

*This investigation was produced in collaboration with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), and co-published by Le Monde and Deutsche Welle.

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