Refugees at the EU borders – status update from Romania

Refugees sleeping in a parking lot in Serbia.

How prepared is the EU to receive people in need of protection? How can the integration programmes be improved? Those are two important case files for Brussels and the member states that can decide the future of millions. EURACTIV Romania reports.

The general picture of the refugees stranded at the borders of the EU in 2015 and 2016 was horrifying. Two years later, the storm seems to have calmed down in Europe, even though the situation in the origin countries of these people has not improved.

What has changed since 2016 at Europe’s southeastern border?

In 2016, EURACTIV Romania followed the journey of the refugees through Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. We documented the stories of the people and we monitored the flux from Turkey, Greece and Italy. We talked with the responsible authorities and international organisations.

This year, we turned again to the institutions that are managing this phenomenon in an attempt to understand how the situation has evolved and what the current urgencies are.

We received an indication that at the level of the EU, the number of asylum seekers has decreased, even though some individual countries such as Romania have seen an increase in requests. The states do not appear to be better prepared to receive people in need, the reception centres have been harshly criticised for the living conditions they offer, although the situation differs from case to case.

In Romania, according to the local UNHCR representative, Eduardo Yrezabal, the conditions in the reception and transit centres are adequate, but they can only host a limited number of people.

Thus, even though last year the general Inspectorate for migration processed all of the 4,800 asylum requests received—a record number in relation to the country’s average of requests per year in the last 14 years—a significant increase of arrivals would be challenging.

Romania appears to have also been a fertile ground for innovative ideas, arts being used here to bring hosting communities and refugees together. The authorities and UNHCR agree however that much more coordination is needed in the integration process, especially at the local level. A new legislative proposal promises to deliver on this issue.

How prepared is Europe?

Eduardo Yrezabal, the UNHCR representative in Romania, shared with us a general overview of the current situation, as well as a few elements of success. For the full interview, please see the video below.


How prepared are the member states to receive a new flux of refugees?

Well, the situation has changed in the sense that the number of people arriving in Europe has decreased. There are no official statistics released yet for 2017, but the indication we have is that there has been a decrease in the number of people arriving in Europe and seeking asylum in European countries.

Of course, I am talking about Europe in its totality, because there are individual countries, for example in Romania, where the number of asylum seekers increased. But, you remember from the last time we talked, I said ”How can we talk about a crisis when the figures of people arriving in Europe cannot compare with the figures of people arriving in other parts of the world, of people seeking protection in other parts of the world?”, and I am very happy to say that I was right in that.

The fact that the numbers have decreased is not good news, at the same time, because it means that states probably have taken measures to deter the arrival of people who might be in need of protection.

Are countries better prepared to receive refugees? I don`t think there has been an improvement in that sense. There has not been a deterioration either. The situation remains the same in my opinion, but what states have been very keen to do is to apply stricter controls at the borders.

How do you see media coverage and public attitudes with respect to the refugees?

I think the media – if we talk about Romania – the media remain very neutral. They are not against refugees, but they are not firm advocates either.

Unfortunately, we are seeing that in countries that are not very far away from Romania the situation of public attitudes and reporting on refugee issues – the situation has deteriorated a lot. I do not need to name countries, but we all know which countries we are thinking about. That tends to be reflected in the Romanian media also, and that sticks in the mind of the public. I think we still need to work more with the media.

Public attitudes – it’s a little bit the same as with the media. When we see the political context in Europe, when we see that refugee issues in some of the electoral campaigns that have occurred or are occurring are portrayed very high on the political agenda not as a way to support, but as a way to say “This should not happen in our country!”

That sticks in the minds of the people, even if in Romania there is not that discourse currently. In a globalised world, in an integrated Europe, what happens with the public opinion in one country can very easily influence the public opinion in another country. This is a risk I see. So far, I am happy to say that refugee issues in Romania are still addressed at the political level from a very humanitarian, and also an international obligation, point of view, more than from a politicised point of view.

There have been many critics of the existing living conditions in the European border reception centres, an example being Lampedusa. How do you see this situation?  

Well, I think that these shelters – you have mentioned Lampedusa, which is a very visible example – these kind of facilities are always meant for immediate needs, immediate assistance. In the case of Lampedusa, it is for assistance needs after disembarkation. But these are not meant to be facilities where people are supposed to stay for long periods of time.

My opinion, from what I see, is that Europe is still not prepared to receive large numbers of persons and to handle them appropriately at the borders.

I can talk about Romania if you want. The facilities at the border in Romania are quite adequate. They meet the standards. But these are facilities that can host a maximum of 30-40 persons per day. If something such as what happened in 2015 would occur here in Romania, I think the authorities would have some problems to cope with it. It is true that there are some contingency plans.

There is this emergency ordinance that has been approved to establish facilities, integrated transit centres at the border areas. But, still, these facilities could work on a very temporary basis. These facilities are not meant to host large numbers of people for a prolonged period of time, especially during winter when the weather conditions are very harsh. So, once again, my opinion is that the authorities in Europe have put a lot of effort to implement deterrent measures more than to establish procedures to host people in a more systematic and organized way than what we saw back in 2015.

How is the resettlement programme being implemented?

There are countries more favourable to participate in the resettlement efforts than others. UNHCR is very hopeful and very optimistic about the role that Europe can play not only in resettlement but also in other forms of humanitarian admissions. Europe has always been receptive to resettlement programmes.

There is a tradition of resettlement in Europe. With the current needs in Libya, where UNHCR is trying to help through evacuating people who are in dire need of protection and assistance, we are seeing that Europe is slowly but firmly determined to provide some help. Countries like Norway, Netherlands, France, Germany are seriously establishing programmes to provide resettlement spaces for refugees stranded in Libya.

Now, about the so-called European resettlement framework that has been in discussion for years, I think that still some work has to be done at the level of the Commission, at the level of the Council, and at the level of individual states. But the way I see it is that it is good news in the sense that there is no strong opposition by member states to have a European resettlement framework, which was not the case with other forms of solidarity expressions such as for example the intra-European relocation programme, where some Member States had strong oppositions to it.

What about the integration programme?

One year ago, I told you that integration is the most complicated issue in refugee protection. It is a very complex science that requires the involvement of many actors, but it also requires the active involvement of the refugees themselves to assume a commitment. I think that one thing has changed since a year ago. It is that this distinction – that everybody used to agree that it is a valid distinction –  between transit countries and destination countries is fading away.

Especially in the European Union, it is very well understood that even if the refugees themselves still make the distinction between transit countries and destination countries, the states themselves agree that we cannot have this distinction anymore.

This is the purpose of all the work that is done in the framework of the reform of the common European asylum system. We cannot have a common European asylum system if there are destination countries and transit countries.

Now, how successful are the programmes? I can talk about Romania, because it is where I am monitoring more closely the situation. I think the government of Romania has… In the last 12 months, they have put a lot of effort in increasing integration opportunities. However, there is still some work to be done in terms of coordination. Integration is something that requires the active involvement of the central government, local authorities at the municipal level, other line ministries, and the private sector and the local community, the local people.

I think that in Romania what we are aiming to strengthen during this year and also in 2019 is precisely to work more on making this coordination work. There is a strong involvement of the responsible authorities. Everybody agrees that more coordination is needed.

What plans do you have for the #WithRefugees campaign?

The campaign, as I explained a year ago, requests three very basic things. It is aiming to gather support for three very basic things: a shelter, a roof for refugees, the possibility to work, to be self-sufficient, and also education for refugee children. This is integration. I mean, this is the way to define integration.

As I have discussed with you on many occasions, the work of integration also requires bringing together refugees and the local population, the local communities. It is about creating welcoming communities.

Through the activities that were implemented last year in the campaign, in 2017… I mean the Timisoara Refugee Art Festival. There was this initiative also in Cluj with the League for the Defence of Human Rights. Currently, as we speak, we are participating in the Bucharest Documentary Festival, which is… All these initiatives are a good way of bringing refugees and local communities together, to get to know each other.

The Timisoara Art Festival for me was a wonderful experience – to see these young refugees who still do not master the Romanian language, to see them playing as actors with Romanian youngsters, it was something great. When they were on stage, one could not differentiate who was a refugee from who was a Romanian. So, it is a good way to bring people together.

The plans of the Romanian authorities

In order to better understand the vision of the Romanian authorities responsible for the phenomenon of migration, we met with Eleodor Pîrvu, deputy director of the Asylum and Integration Directorate, the general inspectorate for migration.

What were the actions of Romania following the refugees’ situation in 2016?

The intra-European relocation process has been finalised. The two decisions elaborated at the level of the European Union have ceased their enforcement. Romania has actively supported Italy and Greece in their efforts to cope with the situation in 2015 and 2016. Over the course of two years, Romania has relocated 728 persons from Greece and Italy.

We had 683 persons relocated from Greece and 45 from Italy, the entire process being dependent on the capacity of the two states to register and refer people in the relocation process.

In addition to the transfer of people in need of protection, Romania has contributed in the case of Greece and in that of Italy with numerous officers who were experienced in registering and processing asylum requests, as well as in counselling and informing migrants.

In the case of Italy, the number of relocated persons has been lower, but what I can tell you is that Romania has expressed its intention to relocate many more people, but the characteristics of the target group – the majority had Eritrean origins – led to their relocation in countries that already had established Eritrean communities.

As in the case of Greece, we also supported the Italian authorities on the registering and processing procedures, the pre-admissibility process.

Different from the case of Greece, in Italy, we offered support for the transfer mechanism through the Dublin system of people in need of protection.

In addition to the intra-EU relocation programme, Romania contributes to the implementation of sustainable solutions in the resettlement programme, the integration process, and voluntary repatriation.

In what concerns the resettlement programme, Romania has had a dedicated policy since 2008. At that time, we developed an enforcement framework, we trained our people and until now we have finalised three major resettlement operations (refugees transferred from Malaysia and Turkey).

In addition to the support offered to the member states, Romania has actively supported third countries that have been subjected to the migratory flux, such as Turkey. We have a relocation operation that has been finalised recently.

We had a government-approved quota of 80 persons, for two years, out of which we succeeded to transfer 43 refugees – Syrian citizens. The process has been difficult as in the case of resettlement there exists a dependency of third-party organisations and institutions.

What can you tell us about the integration programme in Romania?

Romania has an integration programme that has been enforced since 2004. At the time, the legislation was elaborated based on the existing operational situation. Since 2004 until 2016, the average number of asylum requests in Romania has been of about 1000 – 1500, reaching a peak of 2500 requests in 2012 caused by the events in North Africa.

In 2017, 4,800 asylum requests were submitted – an absolute record number in this field. The General Inspectorate for Immigration analysed, granted access to the asylum procedure, registered and processed all the submitted requests, and offered assistance to those who obtained a form of protection through the integration programme.

In what concerns the integration programme, the 2004 legislation attributes certain responsibilities to several Romanian institutions. The General Inspectorate for Immigration, part of the Ministry for Internal Affairs, coordinates all the activities and intervenes in an initial stage, right after a form of protection has been granted, in order to conduct interviews with beneficiaries, to develop individual integration plans, and to sign dedicated contracts.

Afterwards, other institutions intervene where it is necessary.

An important field-related change that occurred in 2015 was to condition the attainment by a beneficiary of a form of protection of state assistance to the registration in the integration programme. If someone does not actively participate in their individually plan activities or attempts to leave the programme without cause, then the state assistance is stopped.

Following an analysis that we developed concerning the field of integration, a proposal of legislative change has been put forward, and a public debate with the civil society has been organised.

How is the collaboration with local authorities working?

Currently, the cooperation with the local authorities is going well, but things can be improved. Through the proposed legislative initiative, new elements will be introduced that address in a precise manner the cooperation with the local authorities.

For example, at the level of the entire country, at the request of the General Inspectorate for Immigration, local support team in the field of integration will be established, in the cities that have large communities of foreigners. These teams will coordinate at the local level the integration process. The teams will be composed of all local authorities that have field-related responsibilities, and representatives of NGOs.

What are your plans for this year?

In the following period, we will run an ample awareness-raising process in Romania, a campaign that we will implement in partnership with an NGO. The campaign will be financed through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and will aim at presenting the real image of the migratory process and at illustrating the benefits that integrating legally-residing strangers can have for Romania. The title of the campaign is ”I am a stranger until you get to know me”.

We will primarily focus on the objectives established within the National Strategy for Immigration, namely developing the national asylum system, in order to make it more efficient and compliant with national, European, and international legal standards. We will also actively contribute to the international efforts and those of the member States concerning the resettlement programme, and we will focus on improving the process of social integration in Romania of citizens from third countries.

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