First visual evidence of live ammunition being used against asylum seekers trying to reach Bulgaria brings into sharp question the EU’s approach to border control.
Late in the afternoon on October 3, 2022, close to the Bulgarian border fence in Turkey, a group of young men who had hoped to claim asylum in the European Union were recovering after being prevented from doing so. They had been pushed back from Bulgaria and in protest, some of them threw stones towards the border.
Gunshots rang out; a Syrian teenager fell to the ground.
The moment was captured on video. It is the first footage of a refugee being shot at a European border and poses serious questions to EU leaders over the bloc’s approach to migration and asylum amid an escalation of violence and illegal pushbacks.
Abdullah El Rustum Mohammed, the 19-year-old who was shot, survived the attack but was left with life-changing injuries. Bulgarian authorities admit they were at the scene but deny firing the bullet that wounded him.
Lighthouse Reports led an investigative coalition including Sky News, Le Monde, The Times, Domani, RFE/RL Bulgarian Service and ARD which found that unarmed refugees were fired on from the same position on the Bulgarian side where the border police were seen to be located.
This investigation started with a rumour among refugees in Turkey that someone was shot at the border. We sourced the footage from a Turkish lawyer who has filed an application on the incident to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
We obtained Abdullah’s medical records, which show that the bullet passed through his hand and entered his chest, lodging a centimetre from his heart. We tracked down Abdullah himself, who was in Istanbul, who gave us his account of what happened. The teenager said he and a group of friends had crossed to Bulgaria in the morning and were later caught and pushed back across the border. He said he was shot by Bulgarian border forces.
With the footage, we used open source intelligence to establish the exact location of the shooting. We were also able to analyse the video to identify two vehicles on the Bulgarian side – one of which appears to be a Land Rover Discovery used by Bulgarian border police, and the other is consistent with a Bulgarian army truck. Two people can also be seen next to the vehicles, whose uniforms match those of Bulgarian border forces.
An audio expert told us that the gunshot sound was “consistent with a weapon firing in the direction of the recording microphone,” which faced the border. Steven Beck, an audio forensic expert who specialises in analysis of gunshots, also found there was likely to be a “large object directly behind the shooter”. Satellite imagery shows there is a small shelter used by the Bulgarian border police located next to the vehicles and the two visible people.
We also gathered a number of other witness testimonies from asylum seekers along the Bulgaria-Turkey border stating that they have witnessed other shootings of refugees by the Bulgarian authorities, indicating that this is not an isolated incident.
“The doctor told me that I barely made it because the bullet entered exactly down to the heart,” Abdulleh told us, acknowledging that he was lucky to survive the shooting. “Now my hand is half paralysed in my left arm and I have two fractions in my rib cage.”
The publication of the footage and our findings come days before a vote is set to be taken by the EU Council on Bulgaria’s Schengen entry on 8 December.
The Council has expressed a favourable opinion of Bulgaria’s management of its borders in recent months, claiming the country has the “necessary structures in place to ensure respect for fundamental rights by providing access to international protection and respecting the ban on turning away migrants.”
Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch have long been reporting that in practice the opposite is happening and that asylum seekers are being illegally pushed back and subjected to violence.
The Bulgarian authorities have recorded more than 150,000 attempts this year alone – four times as many as last year (36,000), though this figure is likely to include multiple attempts by the same people. The country received €321m in EU funding between 2015 and 2020 to manage migration on its border with Turkey. Officer’s from Frontex, the EU border agency, are also stationed in Bulgaria.