I believe the proper way to start this article is by saying why I have not posted anything since January. The author is working on another more comprehensive work, namely her Bachelor thesis, which is more time consuming than appeared at first sight. Now that the air was cleared, I was contemplating what should I bring to the attention of fellow FSPUB students and like minded readers. I decided I should write about Romania’s involvement in humanitarian action, since there are scarce media resources available for fellow Romanians or non-Romanians about the topic. So, has Romania been involved in humanitarian action…ever? The answer to the question is yes, Romania is and has been engaged in humanitarian work since the 1990s. (Beware, cough cough. We are not talking about peacekeeping operations)
Presently, there are six centers for refugees and one emergency transit center on the territory of Romania, with a capacity to host (in total) 1,000 persons. They are located in București, Galați, Giurgiu, Maramureș (Șomcuța Mare), Rădăuți and Timișoara.
The legal provisions for asylum in Romania can be found in Law 122/2006: “g)The status of refugee – form of protection recognized by the Romanian state to the alien or apatride who fulfills the requirements under the provisions of the Convention relating to the status of refugees, adopted at Geneva on 28th of July 1951, herein named Convenția, to which Romania was made part of by Law 46/1991 for the accession of Romania to the Convention relating to the status of refugees, as well as the Protocol relating to the status of refugees.” Law 122/2006 also establishes the legal administrative framework for refugees in Romania. Article 3 reads that the authority designated to implement Romania’s policies in the field of refugees and asylum is the National Council for Refugees, under the supervision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MAI).
The Yugoslav wars
The first refugees Romania received were the victims of the Yugoslav wars. According to UNHCR Romania, between 1992-2002, 4,500 refugees were moved to Timișoara. They were coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of course, the obvious reason for Romania as a destination for refugees was the close proximity. During the 10 days war, the Croatian and Bosnian wars of independence, the President of Romania was Ion Iliescu. However, more interesting were the actions of Emil Constantinescu (1996-2000) who basically directed Romania’s foreign policy towards the West. In 1996, Romania expresses its will to join the NATO military alliance. In 1999, when the Kosovo war broke out, Romania closed three airports in Western regions, respectively Timișoara, Arad and Caransebeș to facilitate open air space for Allied war crafts. In June 1999, the Parliament approves with a majority the request put forward by President Emil Constantinescu to allow Polish and Czech peacekeeping units to transit the country’s territory on the way to Yugoslavia, during the operation named KFOR.
For more information about the Yugoslav wars, there are plenty of official documents and extensive scholarly work, and you can watch a good movie by Serbian director Srdjan Dragojevic, Pretty Village Pretty Flame (Lepa Sela Lepo Gore).
The Andijan massacre
The second large scale number of refugees Romania received were in 2005, subsequently to the Andijan protest. Andijan is an industrial city in Uzbekistan, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, a protest broke down to which the death toll is not accurately known up to this date. Different sources numbers vary from 123 (Uzbek national government) 1,500 people (Human Rights Watch). The protest in Andijan Babur Square was related to 23 businessmen who were imprisoned by the national authorities on accusations of “religious fundamentalism”. The events escalated on the 12 and 13 of March; in the night of 13 of March the security forces opened fire at protesters. 439 Uzbeks left the city on 12 and 13 of March and headed to the Kyrgyz border. There, they had to spend 10 weeks and the situation was on thin ice because the Kyrgyz authorities could not offer asylum to the refugees and return in Uzbekistan was not an option. Subsequently, the Uzbek government demanded for the return of the 450 Uzbek citizens who were now under the supervision of UNHCR in Romania. The refusal was met with the Uzbek authorities requesting the American Ambassador the withdrawal from the airbase of Kharshi-Khanabad, one of the most important air bases for the ongoing NATO intervention in Afghanistan.
2008. Receiving Eritrean citizens detained in Libya
In 2008, 38 Eritrean citizens were evacuated from Libya prison Misratah to Timișoara. Given the location of Libya on the Mediterranean Sea, it is (was) the single most transited country in Africa en route to Europe. Refugees and migrants have to endure crossing through the desert, as Libya is a country mainly covered in desert, in order to get to the Tripolitania area and later on to attempt to reach Lampedusa island. This was the case of the 38 Eritreans who have left their home country in a bid to escape military service and in quest for a better life. They were spotted by the Libyan coastguards and placed in detention in the prison Misratah from where they would have been returned back to Eritrea.
2008 inauguration of the Emergency Transit Center (CTU Timișoara)
The ETC in Timișoara was one of its kind in Europe up until recently, when a second one was opened in Humenne, Slovakia. It came into being as a result of a Tri-Partite Agreement between the National Government of Romania, UNHCR and IOM. The reason this center exist is mainly the work of the NGO Generație Tânără, which is handling a significant part of the work (they assure food, clothing, medical assistance etc). As the name suggests, it is a transit center, meaning that the persons who reach its doors are only there temporarily. The idea behind the center was to offer a safe location to:
-Refugees at immediate risk of refoulement, or facing acute, life-threatening situations;
-Refugees who are held in detention in another country solely because they entered or are staying without authorization, and who will be released only if they are able to depart to another country;
-Refugees whose cases are sensitive or particularly high profile;
-Refugees for whom resettlement processing cannot be completed in the first country of asylum, for instance due to security threats;
-Refugees for whom the resettlement country or UNHCR has decided not to disclose the resettlement destination to the first country of asylum.
(UNHCR, The Emergency Transit Center in Romania. Bringing Refugees to Safety)
The ETC has the capacity to accommodate 200 persons at any time. According to UNHCR, the facility includes family housing, single unit housing with the possibility to accommodate separately men and women, children playground, prayer space, access to computers, sports hall, sports field etc. It is also located in a beautiful city, one of the most beautiful cities in Romania, a hub for international flights, with population consisting of Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Serbs, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Jews and others.
Since the ETC opened its gates in 2008, there have always been people to cross its door. The first refugees who arrived there were a group of 139 Sudanese from Darfur who were found close to a deserted camp in Iraq. The next group were Palestinians displaced from Baghdad in 2003, due to persecutions by the Hussein regime. They were living in the no-man zone between Iraq and Syria in dangerous conditions, in the desert with threats such as snakes, scorpions, sand storms in the camp named Al Waleed. In 2011, another group of Eritreans were moved into the ETC. The center aims “to bridge the time gap between life-saving evacuations and well-prepared final resettlement to third countries.”
2015 & the refugee crisis
In 2015, EU proposed the ‘refugees quotas’ according to which each member-state should receive a number of refugees and face penalties if it fails to do so. At the discussions in Brussels, the EU officials proposed to President Klaus Iohannis that Romania provided accommodation for 6,351 refugees, but eventually the number was reduced to 1,785 persons due to logistics problems. However, the 1,785 number was far from being reached. The reason for this is very simple: very few refugees want to come to start a new life in Romania. This is a media covered story of a couple who was relocated from Greece to Galați. He is a cooker and she dreams to be a hairdresser: “We heard only the worst about Romania from others. A poor country where migrants are treated very bad, where you have to beg for food and the children live in harsh conditions. When we got here, we changed our opinion 180 degrees. We didn’t expect it to be so good, to be treated this well and the people to be so kind.”
Lastly, I would like to add that when comparing Romania’s help for refugees with the number of persons accommodated by other countries, it seems like nothing. For instance, Jordan and Turkey together provide accommodation for up to 5 million refugees. The top 10 host countries in the world are: Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Dem. Rep. of Congo and Chad and they host 21 million refugees. (Just to have an idea of what 21 million people means, think about the population of Romania and compare the two figures) Also, when comparing with other EU partners, the number seems insignificant. Germany, for instance, has received nearly 1 million asylum applications in 2015 and half a million in 2016. In all fairness, Romania is not exactly a dream destination for refugees and migrants. This is perfectly illustrated by the 3 million Romanian diaspora. But its economy is constantly growing in a time when the EU as a whole is moving with ‘two speeds’ and it has a lot of potential. Education is free, including state universities, living costs are not very high, the climate is good, you have complete freedom of movement and opinion, women have equal rights as men, last war was the second world war. And I would venture to say that the people are welcoming. We particularly enjoy when foreigners seem interested in our culture and our language (even if that is just politeness), so that is the way to winning our hearts.