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Bulgaria is facing a severe demographic crisis and labour shortages. Immigration is an essential part of the solution.


  1. Demographic crisis

In the last 10 years, Bulgaria's population has decreased by more than 850 000 people[i] and in the previous 40 years - by nearly 2 400 000 inhabitants. Both large and small populated areas have suffered. "Population 'melting' is accompanied by ageing and depopulation of entire regions. Bulgarians over 65 account for 23% of the population, while children and young people under 18 account for only 16%, with a steadily declining birth rate. The reasons for these catastrophic figures for Bulgaria's demography lie in negative natural growth - declining birth rates and increasing death rates[ii], and in the emigration flow leaving Bulgaria over the last 30 years. Mechanical growth, the difference between those who settled in the country and those who left, is also negative - "In 2019, 49.1% of emigrants were aged 20-39 and 15.9% were under 20."[iii] This indicator shows the most serious decline in the working-age or pre-working-age population. Bulgaria is losing skilled labour and medical staff[iv] and low-skilled workers who emigrate to the "old" EU member states and developed economies such as the USA, Canada and Australia. Last but not least, the demographic crisis is leading to the depopulation of populated areas and entire regions (over 30% of the country's housing is uninhabitable)[v].

  1. Economic and labour market challenges.

The demographic crisis is challenging the country's economy and the labour market. According to a joint report by the Employment Agency, the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)[vi], Bulgaria "will lose nearly a third of its working-age population by 2050, making it the fastest shrinking country in the world." The ageing population and the decline in working-age people are putting extreme pressure on the social and health systems, as their revenues decline and pension and health care costs increase progressively.

On the other hand, Bulgaria's unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the European Union - 3.9% in April 2023, compared to the EU average of 6%.vii Given that some of the unemployed are employed in the informal sector[viii] and others are not actively looking for work, it is evident that the Bulgarian economy has a labour deficit, not a surplus.

The labour shortage is in several areas:

  • Shortage of highly skilled employees - employees with higher education or specialised work experience in high value-added industries - such as the technology industry. In the IT sector in 2021, the shortage was about 10,000 people, and together with the related sectors of communications and outsourcing, the shortage amounted to nearly 30,000[ix].

  • Shortage of medical staff - our healthcare system needs around 30,000 nurses. There has been a steady ageing in this profession, with 32% of nurses over 65[x].

  • Shortage of agricultural workers - data shows that the agricultural workforce has declined steadily for the past 15 years. In 2007, self-employed and family workers in agriculture, who traditionally accounted for the largest share, were 897 thousand. In 2013 - 557 thousand, and in 2018 - 375 thousand.

  • A labour shortage in the industry - there is also a significant shortage of people in manufacturing - "According to the NSI business surveys in March 2022, 25.5% of industrial enterprises cited labour shortages as a factor hindering their operations" [xi].

  • Shortage of labour in construction - According to the director of the Chamber of Builders in Bulgaria, Ivan Boykov, the construction personnel shortage puts the implementation of large-scale projects at risk in the next few years. He defines the problem as "systemic."[xii]



Can immigration help solve the problems of demographic crisis and labour shortage? Experts from all EU Member States have an unequivocal answer to this question. The European Economic and Social Committee, EESC, has found that immigration benefits the Member States’ economies. In its 2019 legal Opinion [xiii], the Committee identified several dangers in the "no immigration" and "no integration" scenarios: A) Serious risk for the economies of the Member States, which would suffer from labour shortages - "entire industries would go bankrupt, agricultural production would decline, the construction sector would not be able to meet demand". B) Worsening of the demographic crisis, the unsustainability of pension systems, the collapse of health care systems and the depopulation of entire regions. According to the European Commission's briefing paper for the Gothenburg Social Summit, 2017, by 2060 there will be two working people for every retiree, whereas currently, the ratio is one to four.

Several types of immigrants can join the labour market - "economic" migrants, refugees and foreigners without valid residence documents (undocumented persons).

The three categories have different characteristics and different legal statuses. What they have in common is that all three can be successfully integrated into the labour market if there are suitable legal and administrative mechanisms and an inclusive culture among the local population [xiv].

1. Permanent or long-term economic migrants.

Third-country nationals, so-called economic migrants, enter the country legally and most often have an offer from a Bulgarian employer before entering the country or while residing lawfully in the country.

This group of migrants is conventionally divided into two groups - "highly skilled" employees (EU Blue Card) and all other employees (with a single residence and work permit - ERWP).

  • EU Blue Card - The possibility for highly skilled immigrants to reside on the territory of an EU Member State for up to 5 years with the right of renewal if they meet the EU Blue Card Directive requirements has been adopted.xv The procedure is detailed in Article 33k of the Aliens in Bulgaria Act and the Labour Mobility and Labour Migration Act. In January 2023, changes were made to this regime, which facilitated the issuance of a Blue Card to foreigners who do not have a university degree but are in demand on the Bulgarian labour market and can prove their qualifications with 3 or 5 years of professional experience. These changes have particularly positively affected the IT sector, where before the shift, foreigners attracted by the industry could only obtain a Blue Card if they presented a university degree. Still, it is well known that many IT employees acquire their qualifications through work experience rather than higher education in computer science. The Blue Card can be used by all sectors of the economy, including industry and agriculture. If an occupation is not on the list published by the Minister of Labour and Social Policy, then "high qualification" can be demonstrated by more than 5 years of experience. However, the position must still be equated to one that requires higher education. Despite the positive changes in the law, the manner of their implementation is not yet detailed in the Rules for the Implementation of the HRBA, which hinders the practical implementation of the new procedures. For example, Article 33k(5) states, "The application shall be submitted in a form in accordance with the Regulations for the Implementation of the Law, which shall include an electronic address for correspondence", but the regulations have not yet been amended and no such form exists. It is also unclear exactly what the documents proving "at least 5 years of professional experience at a level comparable to higher education are"[xvi] and by whom these documents may be issued.

The amendments to the law also foresee that foreigners who "meet the conditions for the exercise of highly qualified employment under Bulgarian law and who have been granted international protection" can apply for an EU Blue Card. Foreigners granted international protection have one of the most comprehensive sets of rights, equivalent to those of Bulgarian citizens. Therefore, a person with international security would rarely apply for a Blue Card. It is much more essential that people who are in the process of being granted international protection but have not yet received a decision or who have been refused protection can apply for an EU Blue Card.

  • Single Residence and Work Permit, SRWP - For employees who come from third countries but do not fall into the category of obtaining a "Blue Card" , a procedure for a "Single Residence and Work Permit", SRWP, has been adopted in accordance with Directive 2011/98/EU, introduced in the Foreigners in Bulgaria Act, Art. 24i. This procedure allows third-country nationals to obtain a long-term residence permit. Two categories of individuals can benefit:

A) No "market test" - for a particular category of foreigners - a) who are in Bulgaria in fulfilment of international treaties to which Bulgaria is a party, b) guest speakers and lecturers, c) performing artists, d) athletes and coaches who are invited under certain conditions by Bulgarian licensed organisations.

B) With a "market test" - all other categories - here there is no requirement for a specific occupation or industry. Still, the employer should prove that it has continuously sought Bulgarian nationals for the relevant position and justify why it needs to employ third-country nationals. Employers should also bear in mind the requirement that no more than 20% of the employees in the enterprise in the previous year were foreign nationals with a long-term residence permit. For small and medium-sized enterprises, this percentage should not exceed 35%.



  • Both the EU Blue Card and the Single Residence and Work Permit procedures are complex administrative procedures requiring the acquisition of a substantial set of documents, certificates and in some cases, licences. This administrative burden discourages some employers from hiring third-country nationals, even if this is the best option for them and for the market. Recommendation: Due to the arduous and lengthy administrative procedure, which is linked to short deadlines for providing documentation, there is a clear need to inform and educate employers and business sectors on their options for employing migrant workers.

  • The Ministry of the Interior issues both the Blue Card and the EPPR. The Ministry of Interior is a structure that has a political interest in limiting migration as much as possible, including by force. The ministry has little economic expertise, as is required in addressing labour market issues. The objectives of the EU Blue Card and the ERPR cannot be adequately achieved by a structure with police functions. Recommendation: Consideration should be given to administering these procedures by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy or the Ministry of Economy. It is possible that such a change would require the opinion of the Ministry of the Interior, but the final decision would be made by expert economists whose statutory interest is to improve the labour market and the Bulgarian economy while respecting national security.

  • Provide for the possibility for asylum seekers in Republic of Bulgaria or foreigners without settled status who have found an employer and meet the legal requirements to apply for an EU Blue Card or an ERPP without making it a condition for them to leave the country, as this is almost impossible for them.

  • Amendments to the Implementing Rules of the HRBA should be adopted, and new clear procedures for applying for an EU Blue Card should be adopted, which should align with the benefits foreseen in the law.

2. People seeking protection - refugee or humanitarian status

Asylum seekers in Bulgaria face difficulties at every stage of their integration. The problems are complex and interrelated. Refugees from the Middle East and Africa face serious cultural challenges and often discrimination, both when interacting with the local population and from the state administration. Further, difficulties are also experienced due to the lack of coordinated government policies in integrating refugees into local communities. The UNHCR states, "Bulgaria does not provide targeted support for the integration of beneficiaries of international protection and does not have a functioning integration mechanism. Therefore, Bulgarian language courses, support in finding housing, an appointment with a personal doctor, etc. are not offered" [xvii]. A serious obstacle to the integration of asylum seekers is the lack of a single database and a single point of contact - a one-stop shop where refugees could provide and receive information on all state procedures and opportunities - address registration, health insurance, finding a job, education, legal issues, etc. Currently, no single system contains and uses data on refugees in Bulgaria. For example - the NRA has no information on employment contracts of asylum seekers under the Asylum and Refugee Act. Such information is also not maintained by the State Agency for Refugees. No information on the qualifications of refugees is maintained and analysed. In this regard, one of the main recommendations in the Report commissioned by the UN Refugee Agency in 2018 [xviii] is still not implemented:

At this stage, it is important to note that there is still no centralised system with summarised information on the educational and professional qualifications and skills of asylum seekers and beneficiaries in Bulgaria. The SAR collects and makes available general data on its website every month. Still, detailed information on the current employment needs of asylum seekers (as contained in the integration profiles, for example) is not publicly available. This is a significant obstacle for any potential employer interested in the refugee profile - a claim confirmed by all 15 companies interviewed. More transparent and active communication (information campaigns), primarily targeted at employers, is a crucial step towards providing easier access to quality information and raising awareness of companies and society.

Other severe obstacles to the employment of refugees are the lack of knowledge of the Bulgarian language and the absence of educational qualifications[xix]. In this regard, facilitating access to Bulgarian language courses and recognising refugee diplomas and professional qualifications should be encouraged[xx]. In cases where refugees cannot prove their qualifications with an official document, a procedure for passing standardised tests in the relevant profession should be provided to prove their qualifications. For example, instead of requiring a certificate in welding, which may be lost or destroyed when leaving the country of origin, provide for the possibility of passing a test and proving the qualification by a public body or a private educational institution.

Secondly, employers point to cultural differences and prejudices of the Bulgarian population towards foreigners from Asia and Africa as a significant challenge. Objectivity demands that we point out that due to the criminal practices of violent repulsions at the borders, the prejudices that refugees face from the local population, and relatively low pay, fewer of them are willing to stay in Bulgaria. This does not mean, of course, that integration processes should be abandoned—quite the contrary. Suppose our country recognises immigration as one of the ways to tackle the demographic and labour market crises. In that case, these findings should motivate even more profound change, not stop it.

There is also a severe communication barrier between employers and refugees. Many employers are willing to hire refugees but have no experience in doing so and do not have direct access to their communities.[xxi] It would be beneficial to create a platform that connects employers and refugees on one hand and on the other - to provide information on the different types of work permits and application procedures. The NGO sector could be even more involved in facilitating the link between employers and foreigners/including refugees/jobseekers in the country. This has been demonstrated particularly clearly by the leading role of the NGO sector in the reception integration of Ukrainian refugees over the last year.

Finally, low-skilled refugees may find long-term employment in the following sectors experiencing labour shortages - "manufacturing, hotels and restaurants, the transport and construction sectors, as well as the agricultural sector, especially in northern Bulgaria, would require the relocation of refugees to regions that are more depopulated, and this would also benefit local municipalities."[xxii] In this regard, Local Government Refugee Agreements can be extremely useful.[xxiii]


  • Facilitate access to Bulgarian language courses and vocational training.

  • Facilitating proof of professional qualifications by means other than an official document issued by the country of origin.

  • Information campaigns at national and local level to promote acceptance of different ethnicities and cultures and to highlight the benefits for the Bulgarian economy and culture.

  • Establish an effective platform to link employers, third-country nationals, and asylum seekers. The platform could provide information on the different permits, licences and procedures for employing refugees and other third-country nationals in different languages.

  • Promote Local Authority Refugee Agreements and assist local authorities in the administrative process. Employers and refugees lack information about this possibility and do not use it sufficiently.

  • As also mentioned in point 1, asylum seekers or those who have not been granted protection but have remained in the country and integrated into the economy should be able to apply for an EU Blue Card and an EPR if employers are available.

3. Undocumented persons

The OSCE and PICUMxxiv definition of undocumented persons is: "a person who does not have a valid permit to stay in the country in which they are present, usually because their visa or work permit has expired because they have been refused international protection, because they have entered the country illegally, or because they are the children of undocumented persons."

Undocumented persons have very limited rights in Bulgaria, as in most EU countries, although most of them are deeply integrated into society and add value to the economy. They are 'non-existent' to the law and suffer substantial social, economic and emotional disadvantages. These are people whose visas have expired or who have not been granted temporary or international protection but who have also not been returned to their countries of origin. These persons have often been residing and working in the country for decades; many of them are part of the families of Bulgarian citizens. They, therefore, become part of the informal economy and are highly vulnerable to all kinds of abuse, extortion and even human trafficking. These persons cannot ask for help from the state and local authorities. The only service they can receive is emergency medical care. That is why a significant number of countries in the European Union have 'regularisation' procedures for these immigrants.

First and foremost, a serious effort should be made in Bulgaria to count undocumented foreigners and analyse their profiles, needs and challenges. The lack of information puts these people in the most disadvantageous situation possible. On one hand, they are deprived of legal rights. On the other hand, they are not allowed to be heard or participate in public discussions. One of the main reasons for Ireland's progress in regularising undocumented migrants is that migrants have been given a platform to make their voices heard.[xxv] The Irish experience shows that foreigners must gain the support of civil society and NGOs by creating 'safe spaces' for meetings and discussions for campaigning by foreigners themselves without fear of institutional persecution and expulsion. This should be accompanied by a sociological survey with a representative sample of undocumented migrants themselves. A similar example is found in Malta, where NGOs state, “The advocacy activities were based on the information we had in communicating with the affected communities. However, we realized the limits of our information in terms of quantity, coverage and level of detail. Clearly, we needed a deeper understanding of the issues of the affected communities. Thus, the research undertaken aimed to fill the information gap and provide our campaign with the data (general and individual) we needed" [xxvi]

The Irish and Maltese examples show that it is difficult to convince the political class that regularisation is needed if advocacy organisations do not know the specificities and problems of undocumented migrants. Before moving towards legal changes and the introduction of regularisation mechanisms or schemes, a better network should be established in Bulgaria between migrants themselves and their community leaders and a thorough sociological survey should be carried out.

Moreover, third-country nationals who have not been granted protection and refugee status but have already shown serious efforts to integrate into the country should be given a basic package of rights and the possibility of alternative legal residence based on certain criteria. Similar is the experience of Malta, where in 2010, the government started adopting regularisation policies that covered 1 000 foreigners who had been refused refugee status. In 2016, 23 NGOs, including those led by migrants, published a statement of core values and rights necessary for the regularisation of already integrated undocumented foreigners. These efforts are vital to the success of the campaign.

In 2020, CPP-Glass Bulgaria launched a campaign to support a legislative initiative to regularise the status of undocumented people in Bulgaria, together with civil society partners. Specific proposals to introduce changes to the Foreigners Act have been created, and a video featuring the stories of these people has been presented.[xxvii] A petition in support of these legislative proposals has also been launched.[xxviii]

From personal experience, we believe that in Bulgaria, the efforts to "regularise" undocumented persons should go through the following stages - 1) creation of a network of advocacy organisations, 2) creation of a "safe space" where migrants themselves can express their problems and be heard, 3) sociological research and collection of qualitative and quantitative data on undocumented foreigners, 4) winning over key political and media stakeholders, 5) drafting a common legal and administrative framework for regularisation.



The demographic crisis in Bulgaria is one of the most serious in the world. Tackling it is a matter of systematic and coordinated policies that affect all areas of the economy, culture and education. The melting of the Bulgarian population due to negative natural growth and the mass emigration of the active population pose severe economic and social challenges for the country. The population is ageing, fewer and fewer active workers are paying social security contributions and taxes to cover the pensions of an increasing number (as a share of the population) of elderly Bulgarians. Labour is lacking in almost every area of the economy, both in high-skilled occupations and in low- and medium-skilled workers.

Immigration can be one of the key responses to address these challenges. High-skilled economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, foreigners left without valid documents for stay and work, but already integrated into the Bulgarian economy, can bear part of the burden of the social and health systems and fill the gaps in the labour market. This study proposes the following recommendations, which are not exhaustive but can serve as a good basis for future research and discussion:

  • Due to the cumbersome and lengthy administrative procedure for issuing the EU Blue Card and the EPR, NGOs and law firms need to step up providing easily accessible information and legal services for employers and migrants. A structure with police functions cannot adequately achieve the objectives of the EU Blue Card and the EPR. Consideration should therefore be given to the possibility of these procedures being administered by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy or the Ministry of Economy in coordination with the Ministry of the Interior.

  • Asylum seekers and undocumented persons are most often unable to prove their work experience with official documents. Therefore, it is important to provide mechanisms for asylum seekers and undocumented workers to obtain a Blue Card and an EPR, and prove their qualifications through on-the-job training in the country or through standardised examinations before state institutions or licensed employers. In this respect, a legal possibility should be foreseen to allow persons without protection, refugee or humanitarian status to apply for a Blue Card or an EPR with a simplified procedure, especially if they have already demonstrated successful integration into the Bulgarian economy.

  • For the successful integration of refugees into the Bulgarian economy, access to Bulgarian language courses and vocational training should be facilitated, as well as making it easier to prove professional qualifications in ways other than through an official document issued by the country of origin.

  • The government and the NGO sector should organise campaigns at national and local levels to promote acceptance of different ethnicities and cultures and to highlight the benefits to the Bulgarian economy and culture of including people of different cultures and ethnicities.

  • Establish a working internet platform to facilitate the linking of employers and migrants. The platform would also be useful by providing information on the various permits, licences and procedures for employing foreigners.

  • Establish a network of NGOs and undocumented migrants to step up the campaign to 'regularise' foreigners already integrated into Bulgarian society who have been left without residence and work documents and cannot be returned to their countries of origin. The following steps, adopted from good practices in Ireland and Malta, are recommended: creating a network of advocacy organisations, empowering the migrants themselves, sociological research, winning key partners, and finally, drafting a common legal framework for regularisation.


Author: Legal Aid Centre - Voice in Bulgaria

Lyubomir Avdzhiyski, advocacy expert at the Legal Aid Centre-Voice in Bulgaria

Editor: Diana Radoslavova and Desislava Todorova

The statement is prepared as part of the project "Responding to the Crisis in Ukraine", funded by the European Programme for Integration and Migration (EPIM), a joint initiative of the Network of European Foundations (NEF), implemented by the Center for Legal Aid - Voice in Bulgaria, in partnership with the foundations "Mission Wings" and "Council of Refugee Women". The entire responsibility for the project and the content of the opinion lies with the organisations implementing the project and the content may not necessarily reflect the positions of EPIM, NEF or EPIM's partner foundations.

i Where is the key to tackling the demographic crisis in Bulgaria?",, 12 May 2023,


ii "Economic Consequences of Demographic Changes and Labour Migration on Labour Market Processes", Elka Tsoneva, University of Rusen, 2015,


iv "Report on demographic change and its implications for the future EU cohesion policy", 2011, para. 28 "points out that the migration of skilled labour from the new Member States to the old Member States is one of the biggest demographic problems of the new Member States and has a negative impact on the age structure of their populations; stresses further that migration also affects medical staff and therefore jeopardises the sustainability of the health system in less developed regions;"

v Over 30% of housing in Bulgaria is uninhabitable",, 27.01.2021,


vi "Reaching and Activating the Inactive and Unemployed in Bulgaria (Short version)," OECD, March 15, 2022,

viiEurostat: Unemployment in Bulgaria falls up to 3,9%“,, 1 юни 2023,

viii Public spending on healthcare in Bulgaria and the EU", Daniela Penkova, November 2020, "According to a study by economists Leandro Medina and Friedrich Schneider for the International Monetary Fund, the informal economy in Bulgaria in 2017 was 29.6% of GDP",

ix "IT sector staff shortage is close to 10,000",, 14 October 2021,

x "Shortage of over 30,000 nurses", Alyosha Shalamanov, BNT, 23 April 2022,

xi "Key Indicators for Bulgaria" as of April 2022, NSI, 4 April 2022,

xii "Construction labour shortage puts major projects at risk", BIAA, last accessed 26.07.2023,липсата-на-работна-ръка-в-строителств/.

xiii Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on 'The cost of refusing immigration and refusing integration', 2018,

xiv For the purposes of this study, the residence and contribution regime for seasonal workers and the Seasonal Workers Directive will not be commented on.

xv “EU Blue Card Directive – entry and residence of high-skilled workers” -

xvi Labour Migration and Labour Mobility Act, Article 17(2)(c),

xvii "What Refugees and Asylum Seekers Get in Bulgaria," United Nations Refugee Agency, accessed June 24, 2019,какво-получават-бежанците-и-хората-тъ.html#_ftn1.

xviii Bulgarian Labour Market Needs as a Key to Refugee Employment," CATRO Bulgaria and UN Refugee Agency, 2018,

xix Ibid

xx See footnote 13

xxi See footnote 16

xxii Ibid

xxiii "Ordinance on the Conditions and Procedure for the Conclusion, Execution and Termination of the Agreement on the Integration of Aliens Granted Asylum or International Protection", 2017,

xxiv Regularization of Migrants in an Irregular Situation in the OSCE Region: Recent Developments, Points for Discussion and Recommendations (2021), „A person who does not have valid authorisation to stay in the country they currently reside in, usually due to expiration of their visa, residence or work permit; rejection of an application for international protection or residence status on other grounds; irregular entry; or being born to undocumented parents.“,

xxv "How to secure a regularisation - Case study, Ireland", 2022,

xxvi How to secure a regularisation. Case study - Malta", 2018,

xxvii Campaign of CPP-Glas in Bulgaria "It's up to us":