Refugee "push-back" deaths prompt Bulgaria probe call

Ethnic Yezidis have had to flee persecution in Iraq. Photo: UNHCR/N.Colt

The deaths of two Iraqi men who were refused entry to Bulgaria and then assaulted has prompted calls for a "independent and transparent" probe into the incident.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said that the men who died were with a group of 12 Yazidi Iraqis, the ethnic minority that's been persecuted by extremists who invaded the Middle East country last June.

A third man was found in a critical condition and taken to hospital, UNHCR said, adding that it continues to hear reports of asylum-seekers being pushed back from the European Union's borders.

Daniel Johnson has more.

The assault happened earlier this month and involved Bulgarian border guards, according to UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler.

They reportedly stopped the Iraqis, seized their belongings and violently assaulted them.

The asylum-seekers scattered but two of the men had sustained severe injuries and later died of hypothermia, Spindler said.

A third member of the group was later found by Turkish police and taken to hospital in Edirne near the border.

Spindler said the Iraqis were most likely refugees and that the UN agency had received similar accounts of abuse and denial of entry – or "pushbacks" — at the European Union's borders.

"Reports and testimonies gathered by UNHCR in 2014, indicate that people searching for international protection often attempted to cross the border into Bulgaria multiple times, but had to turn back because of bad weather, were abandoned by the people smugglers they had paid to take them across the border, or were intercepted by the Turkish authorities before they managed to cross the border. Many, however, reported being denied entry or being "pushed back" by Bulgarian border guards."

Bulgaria has a 33 kilometre security fence along its border with Turkey and is planning to add another 82 kilometres to it, the UN agency said in a statement.

Spindler stressed that UNHCR was not against security controls and but that they "should not get in the way of people claiming asylum".

The UN agency has called for an investigation into the latest incident. Here's William Spindler again:

Iraqi Yazidi 2

"What we're calling for is an investigation by the Bulgarian authorities and also by the Turkish authorities. The credibility of the investigation needs to be beyond all doubt and we would like the proper authorities to look into this, not simply for them to tell us the version of the guards."

Spindler added that the majority of asylum-seekers are Syrians and many have walked for days by the time they arrive at the EU's external borders.

Denying people entry went against Bulgaria's international obligations, UNHCR said.

Daniel Johnson, United Nations.

Duration: 1'50"

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