They call it the “cage” or the “jail”. Tucked away in the small Bulgarian town of Sredets is a crumbling outhouse on the edge of a compound where border forces are stationed.

The floor is often covered in litter, there are no real beds, and on one side are metal bars.

The sordid room is no ordinary prison. People who say they were held inside deny that they are criminals.

Instead, they are asylum seekers who say they were held in a makeshift prison by Bulgarian border forces before being forcibly returned to Turkey.

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October 15

“When they caught us, they beat us…they stripped us…shaved our eyebrows with a Gillette razor,” said Nackman, a 34-year-old refugee who says he was detained for several hours. In the cage.

“Then there was this wooden room that could only hold 20 people, but they forced 60 people into it; even an animal couldn’t survive in that wooden room. It has the worst smell ever, so if you have to use the toilet, you’ll just go to the side, they won’t look at you with human eyes.

As part of a joint investigation by Sky News, Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, Monitor, Domani, SRF and RFE/RL Bulgaria, we filmed addiction five times in October and November 2022.

Each time there were people inside. On one occasion, a Bulgarian border force officer is recorded opening the door and leading people out.

October 24
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October 24

We showed the video of addiction to refugees near the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Kenan, 31, recognized him immediately.

“We slept in this prison for three days. They insulted us. When we asked them for bread, they pushed us away, cursed us and I didn’t know what they were saying. he recalls.

November 23
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November 23

“They released the dogs”

Another man said he was held there before being pushed back across the border into Turkey.

“After they threw me in the container, they let the dogs go. It was me and a young child. He was 12. He was bitten by the dogs and so was I,” he said.

Allegations of border abuse by Bulgarian authorities are frequent. A Syrian refugee named Shaddi said on one occasion that he was caught by authorities as he tried to cross Bulgaria into Serbia.

“They took our clothes off and they put us in very cold water, maybe 10 minutes. And they threw sticks…and they shot us with a plastic gun. It’s the plastic ball,” he said. “It’s inhuman I think…because we’re human. We’re not animals. We’re not terrorists.”

Read more: Refugee shot dead near Bulgarian border

Asylum seekers say they were held in the squalid prison known as "Cage"
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November 25

As part of the investigation, reports of unlawful pushbacks and abuses were recorded at several EU borders. In Hungary, refugees reported being held for hours tied outside or in containers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a man said he was beaten by Hungarian police and detained for two days. Similar reports have been reported to help Doctors Without Borders workers.

“What we started to hear more and more is that people were kept inside these containers until 12 p.m. just before they were forcibly returned to Serbia. Often they kept up to 60 people in such a confined space, either standing or in stressful physical positions,” said Alessandro Mangione from the medical NGO.

Asylum seekers near the Turkish-Bulgarian border
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Migrants walk near the border between Serbia and Hungary. Photo: Aleksandar Milanovic

Hungary ‘totally rejects the allegations’

He said aid workers routinely treat refugees for beatings and injuries caused by officials.

In response to the allegations, the Hungarian authorities issued a statement indicating that its officials carry out their duties in a lawful, professional, humane and proportionate manner.

“The Hungarian government categorically rejects the allegations which once again seek to discredit the personnel on duty at the border. Hungarian police and soldiers protect the EU Schengen borders legally and in accordance with European and Hungarian regulations,” he said. -he adds.

The Bulgarian government has denied any wrongdoing by border officials and said it abides by international and national laws. He said officials were facing increasing attacks from people trying to cross into Bulgaria illegally.

The European Commission has said it takes all allegations of wrongdoing at Europe’s external borders seriously, that the violence and loss of life is unacceptable and that it expects national authorities to investigate any allegation and ‘they respond quickly and efficiently.

But the revelations are worrying; people seeking protection report abuse and detention in clandestine prisons – suspected black sites in Europe.

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