How does Romania compare with other European countries on processing asylum requests? What are the challenges faced by refugees once they reach Romania? Who can bridge the link between them and the local communities?

Cătălin Bercaru is a Communication Assistant at the Romanian office of the International Organisation for Migration. talked to him about Romania in the context of the refugee crisis and about the situation of the refugees living here.

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Reporter: Has the 2015 refugee crisis represented a new phenomenon for Romania in terms of the number of people coming here?

C.B.: For Romania, it was nothing new. Romania was not a destination country for the groups of people who came to Europe. Just a couple hundred people reached Romania. What happened however after 2015 was that Romania accepted to receive a quota of the people who reached Greece and Italy, and people started to be relocated. In 2016, approximately 500 people were relocated. But, for Romania, that was not a new phenomenon. Romania has experience in receiving refugees, has the mechanisms to analyse their requests, to offer them a form of protection, and to eventually integrate them. In the last five years, in each year, almost 700 hundred people have received a form of protection and were integrated in Romania. I repeat, 700 hundred people per year, without any connection to the recent crisis. So, as I said, Romania has the mechanisms, the experience, all that it requires, to be able to manage these fluxes of people.

Reporter: In this context, what are the activities of the International Organisation for Migration in Romania?

C.B.: Since 2010, the International Organisation for Migration has had projects for integrating foreigners, including refugees. What do these projects imply? There are different mechanisms through which an individual – regardless if they are foreigners legally residing in Romania or refugees – using our organisation can gain access to education and healthcare. Practically, these individuals can contact our counsellors and ask how their children can be registered at schools, how they can obtain healthcare insurance, and our counsellors guide them.

More than that, there are funds granted by the European Union, through which our organisation can support people exactly on these matters – we can pay a medical insurance for a certain period, we can help them find a job. But our organisation is not alone in the country. At national level, there are different integration regions. In each region, there is a non-governmental organisation or an international organisation – like we are – that implements these integration projects. As I told you, this refers to counselling people to find a job, to register their children to school, or to obtain a medical insurance. In addition, these projects also include Romanian language courses and socio-cultural activities. Just imagine, there are people who come to Romania having no idea about what happens in this country. There are volunteers who walk with them through the city, traveling with them by bus and metro, explaining them how to use the bus card. You cannot imagine the wonder in the children`s eyes when they enter for the first time in a metro station. So, there are activities that help these people learn the city, the culture, and the country. The International Organisation for Migration works on this integration project in the region of integration I – that is in Bucharest and the neighbouring counties.

Reporter: How is this process in Romania by comparison to other countries from Western Europe?

C.B.: We believe that Romania is a country where they (refugees – e.n.) would have more facilities and more opportunities, primarily because in Romania today there is no pressure on the social protection systems and on the authorities that analyse and grant protection statute. Think about it, in Germany, there are 1 million requests for international protection. In Romania, there are tens or hundreds.

The time required for analysing these requests is much shorter in Romania, while the resources that Romania allocates for each person are much greater than in Germany or in any other Western European country where - as I was saying – there is a pressure on social protection systems. In Romania, if we have 1,000 people per year, we have institutions, organisations, volunteers, and individuals who can efficiently manage the situation.

It is true that we do not compare financially or logistically with many other countries from Western Europe. However, because in Romania there is no similar social pressure, we can efficiently manage migration fluxes.

Reporter: You say that there is no institutional pressure on social systems, but what of the local population? What kind of attitudes have you observed among the local population? Have you noticed extremist attitudes?

C.B.: We did not notice negative or extremist attitudes. There were indeed isolated incidents in some areas where building new facilities for receiving refugees was being considered. However, we believe that these were isolated incidents and do not reflect the general attitude of the Romanian public.

If we look on the Internet, on social media, we can observe that articles do have negative comments, but we have not seen that attitude spilling over from online to offline.

As I was saying, Romania has experience in receiving refugees and in granting international protection. In Romania, there are currently six centres where such individuals are sheltered. They are placed close to the border of Romania - Bucharest, Giurgiu, Galați, Rădăuți, in Suceava county, Șomcuta Mare, in Maramureș county, and Timișoara, in Timis county. These centres have existed for years. They work fine. People are staying there. There has never been a problem with the communities living in their vicinity.

In Șomcuta Mare, which has a couple of thousands of residents, people have gotten used of seeing people with different nationalities. For them, it is something natural to see Afghans, Iraqis, or Africans waiting in line with them at the store. It is something perfectly normal. As I said, there has never been any problem.

Isolated incidents do occur, but that is owed primarily to a communication that could have been done better. People could be provided with better explanations regarding the arrival of families, of people with children, running from evil, bullets, and war, who are searching for a safe haven to continue their lives.

Reporter: In this context, do you cooperate with local authorities on these matters?

C.B.: Apart from the direct assistance that we offer to refugees, apart from the fact that we teach them how to register to schools, to go to hospitals, we also have, in parallel, actions to advise or work together with local authorities. We explain them the rights of refugees, how they can be registered in the education system, or the healthcare system. There are different local communities, or local public institutions that have not met such cases before. There are public servants who have never seen in their lives how a refugee identification card or passport looks like. What we do is organise presentation sessions for preparing these public servants for the moment in which they will see such a document. We are basically preparing the field for the moment in which not only Bucharest or the large cities will receive refugees, but smaller cities as well. These people have almost the same rights as any Romanian citizen and when they will walk to a public office desk we want to make sure that the person sitting on the other side will know what that ID card means, and how to respond to any questions, like they would do with any other Romanian citizen. There are different presentation and counselling sessions that we use to train local authorities on how to correctly manage their relation with the people who receive a form of protection in Romania.

Reporter: Let`s explore a hypothetical case. A family of refugees is trying to obtain a medical insurance or they go to a hospital and for some reason they cannot get the medical service they require. Who do they need to address?

C.B.: When there are specific issues of this sort, our counsellors or our volunteers go with the person in question to the institution where they encountered a problem. But more than that, what the International Organisation for Migration tries to do is to collect information about different types of problems and approach afterwards each institution where they were encountered. We are not trying to solely resolve a specific problem, but rather to do a legislative, institutional fine-tuning on the methodology used by some organisations or public institutions to handle a problem. We cover each individual case, we go with people at hospitals, or the pension house, or to a specific school where children are prohibited from registering because those working there have never seen a refugee document, but we also collect these diverse problems and situations, and we proceed on approaching at an institutional level the authorities in order to help people understand. It is not a matter of bad will, it is not the case that someone does not want to have refugees around, it is just an issue of a lack of knowledge. I do not know if you have seen how a residence permit looks like. One gets it on the basis of a refugee status. It is pretty rare. Romania has 20 million people. 700 hundred people each year is a very small number. These people get placed across the country. If they end up in a smaller city, there is a good chance that the local authorities have never seen such a case before.

Reporter: What can you tell us about the work of the local communities of foreigners in this context?

C.B.: This year we have a planned relocation to Romania of 100 refugees who are currently staying in Turkey. Their selection will be finalised based on their links to Romania. There are people in Romania who have Syrian relatives in Turkey and are trying to bring them in Romania. So, from this perspective, the local community of foreigners is the pillar that makes relocating these people, who qualify for international protection, possible. There exists a close collaboration between the local communities and the people who are scheduled to come. We have seen this in the past as well – a mobilization, especially of the Arab community. They mobilise financially, but, more important than that, they provide information. There are, for example, Iraqis or Afghans who came to Romania. We are trying to explain to them what`s going on here, but they assimilate the information in an entirely different manner if it comes from one of their own, who has lived here in the past 10 or 15 years. So, from this point of view, the role played by these cultural intermediaries is very important. They know both Romania and the realities of the countries from where the refugees are coming. They are an important bridge for the people who come to Romania.

Reporter: In the end, I want to ask you if one can speak of a migrant or a refugee profile?

C.B: A profile of the migrants that reach Romania and seek a form of protection… Consider the fact that it could be me or you… We could find ourselves in a situation in which we need to run from a danger, to run from a war, to run from bombs. In these cases, we do not talk about a specific profile, about a specific education. They are people like those we see around us and who suddenly had to flee. There are people with higher education and people with medium education. There are poor people and rich people. There is no specific profile. These are people who at a certain point had to escape a war, a danger. If they were alone, they left alone, if they were with their families, they left with their families. We must not think in the terms of a profile. We should look around us and realise that we are seeing people who might become at a certain moment refugees. If tomorrow, in Romania, a problem would appear, we would all seek a safe environment. So, we all can become at a certain point potential refugees as the people we now see on TV and hear about.

They are people who are alone or who have families with them. They run from danger, war. It is fear that drives them. Once they reach Romania, their integration can be simpler or more difficult. For older people is more difficult to learn a new language, a new culture, and adapt. For children, it is different. They learn Romanian quickly and they will integrate faster, and, in time, they will become a bridge between their parents and our culture. Parents will remain anchored in their own country, traditions, and customs, things that with a certain age it becomes difficult to change, but children are like sponges who absorb and learn – they will be the bridge.

Authors: Andrei Schwartz (interview), Dani Drăgan (camera and video editing), Paula Căbescu (editing and subtitles)

Our project

The route used by refugees coming from the Middle East to Europe has not closed after the migration peak of 2015. The only thing that has happened is that the number of people reaching the wealthier and opportunity-filled West has dropped, as the route has gotten significantly harder than it was during the more favorable context of a few years back.

Some countries have effectively closed their borders, forcing the refugees to go around or simply blocking thousands of people from continuing their journey towards the European dream.

Assisting the refugees continues to represent a problem for the poor states in the region that lack the necessary resources to shelter them. These countries continue to be confronted with thousands of vulnerable people to whom they have to ensure minimum living conditions.

EurActiv Romania has documented with the financial assistance of the German Marshall Fund the hardships and tragedies of migrants and refugees coming to Europe from the Middle East. We have taken a closer look at the challenges they face, but also at the opportunities that they can access in order to rebuild their lives, at the horrifying stories of their death escaping journeys, but also at extraordinary examples of compassion, at misleading prejudice and misunderstanding of day-to-day realities, and also at exemplary cases of integration and community service.