SAR, UNICEF, IOM and the Swiss Embassy opened a Safe Zone for unaccompanied refugee children in the Registration and Reception Centre – Harmanli

More than 11,000 unaccompanied refugee children have sought protection in Bulgaria in the last 5 years

15 May 2024
Safe Zone in Harmanli opening

Harmanli, 16 May 2024, A Safe Zone for unaccompanied refugee children was opened today in the largest registration and reception center for refugees in Harmanli. The official opening was attended by Ms. Iliana Iotova, Vice President of the Republic of Bulgaria, Mr. Kalin Stoyanov, Minister of Interior, H.E. Raymund Furrer, Ambassador of the Swiss Confederation to the Republic of Bulgaria, Ms. Mariana Tosheva, Chairperson of the State Agency for Refugees, Ms. Teodora Ivanova, Chairperson of the State Agency for Child Protection and Ms. Christina de Bruin, UNICEF Representative in Bulgaria.

"Bulgaria is among the European countries with the highest number of unaccompanied refugee children. The presence here today of so many representatives of the institutions is a sign that the Bulgarian state is not shirking its responsibility. Today the biggest thanks go to the joint efforts of the State Agency for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration - Bulgaria and UNICEF to have another safe zone for unaccompanied children" - said Mrs. Iliana Iotova, Vice President of the Republic of Bulgaria at the official opening ceremony of the safe zone.

The official guests were welcomed by some of the refugee children and children from local artistic groups in Harmanli.

"Love does not rhyme with war. War ends, and love remains. We are grateful to Bulgaria for accepting us and providing us protection." - Ammira, Syria 12.

The Safe Zone was established jointly by the State Agency for Refugees (SAR), UNICEF Bulgaria, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Bulgaria with the financial support of the State Department of Migration (SEM) of Switzerland.

"Children have always been a core value in Bulgarian society and I believe that their protection, as well as investing in their development, remains a national priority and a common, shared responsibility among all institutions in our country," said Mariana Tosheva, Chairperson of the State Agency for Refugees at the opening ceremony.

“Switzerland and Bulgaria work together in addressing the challenges of migration! The bilateral cooperation between Bulgaria and Switzerland, especially in migration management, is based on a strong and stable relationship. It is therefore fitting that we have come together to provide protection and care to children, who without doubt are the ones who suffer most and need the most help in times of crises and forced migration”, ambassador Furrer said in his welcome.

The new "Safe Zone" in Harmanli, which is the third in the country, provides secure and protected space and 24/7 care for the most vulnerable children who are separated from their families.

The area can accommodate 98 children with the possibility of doubling its capacity in the event of a crisis. The area has separate rooms for girls and children with disabilities, two office spaces, a kitchenet and a living room.

This will allow each child, accommodated in the safe zone, to receive immediate and adequate care and protection, support for placement in a social service, and monitoring the individual case and needs of each child, including the possibility of reunification with their families.


As an external border of the EU, Bulgaria is at the doorstep of the Eastern Mediterranean route. Bulgaria is one of the main countries through which people seeking refuge from persecution and conflict arrive in the EU. Since 2017, the number of unaccompanied children has increased significantly and is currently around 70% of the total number of children applying for international protection. In the period from 2021 to 2023 SAR has accepted the applications of 10 363 unaccompanied children. In the last two years, Bulgaria has registered a record high number of unaccompanied children seeking protection - 3,348 in 2022 and 3,843 in 2023.

Since the beginning of 2024 until today 416 unaccompanied children have sought protection in Bulgaria. For the same period, the total number of applications for protection registered by the SAR is 2774, of which 781 are children.

As of May 16 2024, 302 asylum seekers are accommodated in the Harmanli Registration and Reception Centre, mainly from Syria. Of these, 123 were men, 44 women and 135 children. Of the children, 72 are unaccompanied, 7 of them are under 14 years old, 13 families with children also live in the center. About 40% of unaccompanied children have received international protection, after which they should be placed in a social service.

Access to alternative care and social services (such as foster care, family-type accommodation centers, transitional or sheltered housing) is crucial for unaccompanied children. They provide children with stability, security, a sense of belonging, and close to the family environment, without their parents or caregivers, which is essential for the child's well-being and development.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts to increase the number and capacity of the social services in the country in recent years, many of them are still not ready to work with refugee and migrant children and meet their specific needs. In 2022, the number of unaccompanied children placed in social services was 29 and in 2023 it positively increased to 43.

"Every child has the right to safety, protection, care and support, regardless of the child's immigration status, country of origin, sex, race or religion. Every child is first and foremost a child.  Unaccompanied children need comprehensive care, access to education, healthcare, legal assistance and psychosocial support. UNICEF will continue to support children and the responsible institutions in their efforts to ensure effective care and protection of refugee children," said Christina de Bruin, UNICEF Representative in Bulgaria.

More information and resources about UNICEF Bulgaria's programs to support refugee and migrant children can be found here.

A link to the photo exhibition "Innocence Unbound", in which we tell the stories of children who have crossed several borders in search of hope, security and protection can be found here. The exhibition was also located at the Cultural Center in Harmanli, where later in the day an expert meeting was held together with institutions and organizations working with unaccompanied or foreign children separated from their families, including children seeking or receiving international or temporary protection, to discuss existing good practices, challenges and opportunities to improve coordination and interaction in their work.

Media contacts

Boryana Gidikova
Communication Officer
UNICEF Bulgaria
Tel: +359 893 52 52 40


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