GENEVA: European countries must stop returning asylum seekers to Bulgaria due to risks of "degrading" mistreatment there, the UN refugee agency said Friday, as Sofia struggles with an influx from war-torn Syria.
"Asylum-seekers in Bulgaria face a genuine risk of inhuman or degrading treatment due to systemic deficiencies in reception conditions and asylum procedures," said Babar Baloch, spokesman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
As a result, he said, UNHCR wants a three-month suspension of applying rules in Bulgaria that require asylum seekers to be sent back to the first European country they arrived in.
The so-called Dublin Regulation, which aims to stop people making asylum claims in multiple countries, applies to European Union nations as well as non-members Switzerland and Norway.
Baloch said the UN agency had found "deplorable" conditions, such a lack of food and healthcare and arbitrary detention.
He also flagged concerns that Bulgaria had actively stopped refugees from crossing into the country.
Baloch said Bulgaria had made efforts to improve the situation, but that there were gaps between stated policies and the real situation.
"These gaps have worsened with the increase in the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in recent months, particularly those fleeing the conflict in Syria," he noted.
Bulgaria -- the poorest country in the 28-nation EU, sitting on the bloc's southeastern edge -- has found itself grossly unprepared to cope with an influx of thousands of refugees and has repeatedly appealed to other countries to share the burden.
Most enter the country illegally over the land border with Turkey, which itself hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
In 2013, over 9,000 people sought asylum in Bulgaria, up from an annual average of 1,000 since it joined the EU in 2007, he said.
According to figures provided by UNHCR, a total of 70 asylum seekers were sent back to Bulgaria between January and November.
Twenty-eight were Syrians, 12 Iraqis and six from Afghanistan.