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UN warns over refugees turned away in Greece, Bulgaria

Refugees warm themselves near bonfires in a refugee camp located in former military barracks in the town of Harmanli, south-east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, on November 12, 2013
Refugees warm themselves near bonfires in a refugee camp located in former military barracks in the town of Harmanli, south-east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, on November 12, 2013

The UN's refugee agency Friday called on Greece and Bulgaria to stop turning back Syrians fleeing their war-ravaged homeland, as Bulgaria confirmed a clampdown.

"Push-backs and prevention of entry can put asylum-seekers at further risk and expose them to additional trauma," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters, saying that all states must cease such practices immediately.

Bulgaria acknowledged Friday that it had started turning back refugees, many of them Syrian, who were trying to cross over from Turkey.

"More than 100 people have been turned back... from entering the country in the past 24 hours," Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev said in a statement, adding that another 150 had been denied entry the previous day.

Edwards said UNHCR was also seeking more information from Bulgaria about a group of around 100 people reportedly turned away last weekend.

More than 10,000 Syrian refugees and economic migrants from other countries have crossed illegally from Turkey into Bulgaria since the start of the year.

This has led to acute overcrowding at the country's few shelters, threatening a humanitarian crisis as anti-immigrant feeling grows in a country already struggling with dire poverty.

To stem the flow, Bulgaria this week deployed 1,200 police officers to monitor the border. Only 10-15 people are now let in every day, compared to 70-100 a day in the months since the summer, according to interior ministry figures.

The government also announced plans to build a 30-kilometre (20-mile) fence near the southeastern town of Elhovo, close to the Turkish border, and vowed to speed up expulsions of economic migrants to relieve pressure at its reception centres.

Edwards said tightening borders was wrongheaded in the face of the Syria crisis.

"Introducing barriers, like fences or other deterrents, may lead people to undertake more dangerous crossings and further place refugees at the mercy of smugglers," he said.

UNHCR head Antonio Guterres is to visit Bulgaria next week to assess the situation.

Fears for group barred from Greece

Turning to Greece, Edwards said the UNHCR was worried about a group of 150 Syrians, including families with children, barred Tuesday from entering at Evros, a town on the border with Turkey.

This picture taken on May 10, 2009 shows a general view of a shantytown which is home to Afghan refugees in the port city of Patras
This picture taken on May 10, 2009 shows a general view of a shantytown which is home to Afghan refugees in the port city of Patras

"UNHCR received information from villagers of the group being detained and transported in police vehicles to an unknown location, although they have not been transferred to a reception centre," he said.

The group's current whereabouts was unknown, and there were fears they had been sent back to Turkey, he added.

And in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus -- recognised only by Turkey, and not part of the European Union, unlike Bulgaria and Greece -- there were reports that Syrian boat people were being detained and sent to Turkey.

More than 2.2 million Syrians have fled their homeland since the civil war erupted in March 2011, with the vast majority heading to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

The UN has repeatedly called on other nations to help Syria's neighbours shoulder the burden. Edwards underlined that Turkey alone had taken in at least 500,000.

"UNHCR is calling for a global moratorium on any return of Syrians to neighbouring countries," he said, adding it would be a "concrete gesture of solidarity".

"Returning Syrian refugees to Turkey or other neighbouring countries only adds to the challenges faced by these governments and local communities to support and provide assistance to refugees," he warned.

Bulgaria and Greece are the only members of the European Union that have land borders with Turkey, making them the gateway for Syrian refugees who want to go further than Turkey.

Edwards said fellow members of the 28-nation bloc needed to spread the load.

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