SOFIA (Reuters) - U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein accused Bulgaria on Thursday of committing systematic human rights violations by criminalising migrants.
Bulgaria's policy "raises serious concerns about the State’s compliance with international law", he said in a statement.
He said it was "particularly disturbing to see important and influential public figures expressing support for illegal armed vigilante groups who have been brazenly hunting down migrants along parts of the border between Bulgaria and Turkey".
"One of the most serious problems is that virtually all people entering Bulgaria in an irregular manner are detained as a matter of course," Zeid said.
"Even worse, they may also be prosecuted and jailed - for a year or even more - if they try to leave the country. The act of leaving the country is criminalised in spite of the right of everyone, under international law, to leave a country, including their own."
A Bulgarian interior ministry spokeswoman told Reuters the statement "does not fully represent the objective situation concerning asylum seekers in the country".
The state agency for refugees said Bulgarian law laid down rules on how asylum-seekers should be processed.
"A foreigner seeking international protection can be accommodated temporarily and for the shortest possible time in a center that is of a closed type to establish or verify his identity or when necessary to protect national security or public order," it said.
The agency said foreigners had not been detained by force at any of the four regional accommodation centers of an open type. It said it had no information about human rights violations.
Zeid said that other concerns included "pushbacks" of migrants into neighboring countries and persistent allegations of physical abuse and theft by law enforcement officials at borders.
Last month Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said the Black Sea state was bracing for a potential rush of migrants on its southern border following the attempted coup in Turkey.
Bulgaria detained about 14,000 migrants in the first six months of this year, compared with 21,000 in the same period last year.
Few migrants want to stay in the European Union's poorest state, preferring to journey onwards to wealthier EU countries like Germany and Sweden.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche