A talk about how we should talk about refugees in Romania. What is the difference between migrants and refugees? What is being done to help the refugees coming to Europe? What is the role played by Romania?

As the tragedies of the Syrian war continue to unfold, the world remains out of touch with the real situation of the refugees coming from the Middle East as the language used to describe it often confuses matters instead of providing more clarity.

Eduardo Yrezabal is the UNHCR representative in Romania. The team of EurActiv Romania met with him earlier this year to discuss about Middle Eastern refugees in Europe, about the language used to explain their situation, and about what is currently being done to help them.

The video has subtitles in English and Romanian and is available in HD format. You can choose these elements by using the YouTube.com Settings button.

Reporter: There was a lot of talk about the refugee crisis in Europe?. How do you see what happened?

E.Y.: When I hear about a refugee crisis in Europe I have to smile because I used to work in the Middle East and one clear example is Lebanon – a country which has a population of four million people and is hosting one million refugees. That we can call a refugee crisis. It`s the equivalent of 25% of the population of Lebanon. We can imagine the strains that public services in Lebanon are facing. You can think of schools, you can think of hospitals, even private facilities for people, food, water, sanitation etc. Now, when we talk about Europe, the numbers are not really the same. Of the approximative 61 million displaced persons in the world, Europe is hosting only 6%. A whole continent is hosting less refugees than a small country like Lebanon. So, we have to put things in perspective. I think what has scared the people in Europe, particularly the politicians, was the large number – relatively large number - of persons who arrived in a very short period of time. Which really caught everybody unprepared.

Reporter: Let us clarify these terms: migrants, refugees, relocation, and resettlement.

E.Y.: Sometimes people refer to migrants and refugees as if they are the same thing. The only thing migrants and refugees have in common is that they are on the move. They are people who move, to go somewhere else. What makes them different is the reason for which they move. Refugees are persons who have to leave their countries because they need protection from persecution or because there is a situation of war in their countries which puts them in danger. A migrant is a person who leaves his or her country searching for a better life, but he or she does it voluntarily. They leave their country voluntarily and they can return to their country anytime, while refugees cannot return to their country because their life would be in serious danger. That`s why refugees have a very specific legal regime in international law, but also in domestic laws. Both migrants and refugees are human beings and their human rights must be respected.

About relocation and resettlement. What do they have in common? They have in common the fact that they are both solidarity mechanisms. Many people talk about burden sharing. I don’t like this expression. I prefer to talk about responsibility sharing. The intra-European relocation mechanism is a tool that has been created in the European Union to offer support to those countries that are at the front line of the arrival of asylum seekers. Very clearly, in Europe, it has been Greece, and now it is Italy who is receiving a large number of refugees. Therefore, the rest of the European Union countries agreed to establish a mechanism to distribute some of the asylum seekers in the other states of the Union, and examine their claims and offer protection as it should be done. Resettlement is meant for refugees who are residing or have found initially protection in countries which cannot afford to offer them this protection in a sustainable way. Either because the political situation in this country is also complicated because they have their own internal conflicts or because the large number of refugees they are hosting makes it impossible to integrate all of them. I gave you before the example of Lebanon, but there are other examples that can be mentioned. And through this mechanism other countries accept to integrate refugees and to offer protection to refugees who have initially been hosted in these first countries of asylum that are not in a position to offer sustainable protection and integration to refugees.

Reporter: How has the UNHCR responded in Romania to the situation in 2015? Did you need to adapt your activities?

E.Y.: Our activities have not changed that much. They have changed a little bit and I will explain you why. We didn’t have to change our activities here in Romania, because Romania was not affected by the large movements of people. What we tried to do in the past two years was to work with the government in what we call emergency preparedness and contingency planning - meaning Romania has not been affected by large movements, but nothing prevents Romania from being affected in the future. We have been discussing with the government: "Let`s see what your contingency plans are and what assistance you would need in case you start receiving large numbers of people and also let’s be prepared so you are not caught unprepared.” That’s the main issue we have been doing in relation to the refugee crisis. I have to say that it’s not UNHCR doing the planning, it’s the government doing their own plans, and UNHCR offers technical assistance to help them make these plans.

But there is something that has changed dramatically in Romania, but not only in Romania, in all Europe – from Spain, from Portugal, to Eastern Europe. It is because of one of the lessons learned after these movements of people in 2015 and 2016. Traditionally, even if we think that the European Union is supposed to be a very harmonized environment, there was this kind of mind setup, not only among the population, but even among the authorities, the governments, that we considered that the European countries are transit countries and destination countries. Romania was clearly in the mind setup of a transit country. Romania has been generously receiving refugees, processing their applications, granting protection to those who the Romanian government thought deserve protection, providing documents, providing assistance. But both the mind setup of the authorities and the mind setup of the population, of the civil society, were that these people are not going to stay. They are going to move onwards, because they want to go to countries such as Germany, such as Sweden, Norway etc.

However, after this management crisis – let`s call it a management crisis – it has been clear that a common asylum system, which is what the European Union aims at, cannot distinguish between destination countries and transit countries. Each of the members of the European Union are to be regarded as destinations countries and this is why there are all of these mechanisms of cooperation, burden sharing, helping Greece, helping Italy. Germany has been very generous, but, at some point, there is a limit in what can probably be done. It is the same for other countries like Sweden. So, everybody, all the governments and - I think – the European Commission, and of course the UNHCR, are supporting this, saying: "We cannot distinguish between transit and destination. Each country has to be prepared to be a destination country.” And here is where our work has been refocused a little bit, in Romania, but also in other countries in the region. It is to reinforce what we call integration programs. Refugees can receive documents, refugees can receive assistance, can receive shelter, but if at the end of the day they cannot sustain a normal life in the country of residence, protection loses its meaning. What protection is about is giving the opportunity to refugees to have a normal life. What does that imply? It implies learning the language, having access to the labor market, vocational training, having access to education, having access to a place to live. And this is what we are working on now together with the government. What we need, we cannot do overnight. Integration is a very complex process.

Reporter: With what institutions or organizations do you collaborate?

E.Y.: We have a very good collaboration with the General Inspectorate for Immigration and the General Inspectorate for the Border Police. The government, in turn, is working very closely with NGOs who are implementing assistance programs for refugees.

There are a number of organizations that are working now in the field of improving integration opportunities and all of this is coordinated at the center level by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, more concretely by the General Inspectorate for Immigration.

But we also need to expand. This is one of the things that we are jointly looking at with the government. Integration needs to take place at the community level, at the local level. So, it is very important to involve municipalities or the local authorities, but also the population of the cities, neighborhoods, even streets. Integration cannot happen in isolation.

Reporter: What are the challenges that the refuges are facing in Romania, as observed in the practice of your organization? Have you encountered problems such as hate speech, racism?

E.Y.: I cannot say that Romania is featuring high levels of hate speech, but if I were to say that it doesn’t exist at all, I would not be telling the truth. Of course, there are instances of... I wouldn’t call it hate speech. It is more mistrust. But I think that these instances of mistrust have been provoked by what I call the breaking news effect - the breaking news effect of things that were not happening in Romania, but were happening elsewhere. No doubt, the horrible events, what happened in Paris, Brussels and Berlin… All of this is showed on TV and… I`m sorry to say… I don’t want to blame journalists, they do an excellent work in feeding the public opinion with information, but sometimes the language used is very inaccurate. They tend to call "refugee” to people who are no refugees, who are other things, but not refugees. They can be foreigners residing legally, but they are not necessary refugees. But there is this tendency to call everybody a refugee and therefore this is provoking a very perverse effect in assimilating… The public opinion assimilates refugees to criminals, terrorists, when statistically it can be very easily proved that most of the perpetrators of these horrible events had nothing to do with the refugees.

Another challenge that refugees from the Middle East or from other regions of the world face is that… In Romania, in particular, I think we have to work more in having the population - the communities - know about who these refugees are.

There is something very interesting. In 2016, we conducted a participatory assessment with refugees, asylum seekers, residing in various parts of Romania. We were asking them what are the main difficulties, the main challenges, and many of them referred to learning the language, employment, low salaries in Romania. It was very remarkable for me that nobody complained about negative attitudes from the local population. When we were asking them these questions, they were saying: "No. We have not faced this kind of problems”. However, my analysis of this is not that the people are very nice to refugees. My analysis of this is that, in Romania, the local population and the refugees rarely interact. They don’t know each other. Refugees do not mingle with the local population and the local population… They don’t know who these people are and they don’t feel bothered by them. So, one of the things that we need to find a way to do, if we are talking about increasing integration opportunities, is to get people to know who these refugees are, why did they come here, what are their main problems, their main concerns… I have the impression that there is no understanding between both sides, simply because they don’t know each other.

Reporter: One of the ideas of our project was to look at past migrants from the Middle East who have integrated in Romania and document their integration in order to provide the public with a view of the potential positive outcome that the integration process of current refugees might have.

E.Y.: We are very bad at keeping those kinds of records. I mean, I don`t want to say… It is not UNHCR`s fault. It is a collective fault. The government had not been very good at tracking these things. The civil society has never thought that this could be a very interesting topic. UNHCR has simply been working on capacity building for the authorities to deal with asylum seekers and refugees. I think nobody, seriously, has got this kind of data, which would enable a very useful analysis in this regard. No doubt that there have been migratory movements… I mean Romania has exported many migrants to other countries, but Romania, in the past, also imported immigrants. I remember that during the pre-1989 era there were many people from the Middle East who were coming to Romania to study, people from Syria, but also other people from the Middle East. Some of them decided to stay in Romania, they started working here, they formed their family here and now they are fully integrated and they carry out a normal life. Some of these people - I cannot quantify how many - are interested in helping this new wave of Syrian people and people from the Middle East who are coming to Romania. But it`s not well organized. It`s more individuals approaching the government, or NGOs, or the UNHCR, asking: "How can I help?” It`s not very well organized. This is one of the things that we are discussing now with the civil society and with the government, namely that history shows that community support - and here when I talk about community, it is about communities that originated from the same countries – is the key to successful integration. I have seen it in countries such as Canada or the United States, and also in Europe, in countries like Sweden, like Norway, which have also received large numbers of refugees and migrants. These communities play a key role in helping others with very basic things.

Reporter: What will be your priorities in 2017?

E.Y.: Our main priority is to work on increasing integration opportunities, so that refugees may find a meaningful protection system in Romania. But to do that we have to break it into many things – public opinion attitudes, involvement of the private sector, involvement of the municipalities, involvement of the academic institutions. There is one thing that might sound a little bit ridiculous, but it is happening now in Romania. The Romanian government is providing a lot of support to refugees to learn the language, to learn Romanian. Which is the very basic first step for integration. However, the system is built in a way in which it does not foresee that refugees arrive when they arrive. They don’t arrive in September, when the school year starts. So, these are the kind of things we are working together on with the government – how to make the system a little bit more flexible and more adapted to the specific needs of the refugees.

Public opinion, as I said... The local hosting communities and the refugees have rare interactions. How can we expect the local communities to accept people they don’t know? And vice versa, how can we expect from the refugees to count more on the support that they can receive from the local communities?

So, these are very important issues concerning integration. We will continue working, monitoring the asylum system, providing technical advice so that the Romanian government can make fair and efficient decisions. Parenthesis: On this, I have to praise the Romanian government. The asylum system, the asylum procedures in Romania are working very efficiently. A person who is an asylum seeker, who applies to asylum today will get a decision on his or her application in two months’ time. In most of the countries they have to wait years to get their asylum applications adjudicated. Of course, there are low numbers of asylum seekers coming to Romania, so it can be afforded. But it is very important psychologically for a person to receive an answer in the way they are receiving it in Romania, because that is the first indication that this country is willing to protect them.

And we will continue working with the authorities, the border authorities, the border police. They are at the front line of protection and they need some technical assistance from time to time to be able to identify and to distinguish who is a migrant, who is a refugee, who could be a refugee etc.

Reporter: What about the campaign for refugees that UNHCR is running?

E.Y.: This is a campaign I like very much, because it is a campaign with a very clear message, it is a campaign that states the obvious, it’s not reinventing the book.

YouTube/ United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)/ #WithRefugees 2016

More about the campaign can found on its official page.

The campaign is phrased around three basic needs of the refugees. The first need is that every refugee child should get an education. Why? Because 50% of the refugees in the world are children. For me, when I was working directly with them, when I was more involved in the assistance program for Syrian refugees in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, it was very sad to see that we were going to lose one generation - meaning one generation of young refugees who will not have access to education. That was a full generation we could have lost. Luckily, things have improved and the government and the international co mmunity have made a lot to ensure that Syrian refugees have access to education. But Syrian refugees are not the only refugees in this world, they are many refugees that still have problems with accessing education.

The second message is that every family needs somewhere to have a safe life and this can be understood in two ways – it can be understood as every refugee family needs to receive protection in another country, but it can also be understood as every refugee family needs a roof under which to live. So, it is a combination of the right to asylum with the right to have a decent place to live.

The third message is that every refugee needs to work or needs to learn skills, to have access to the labor market. This is something I am often repeating in Romania… A refugee does not want to receive charity. A refugee does not want to receive pocket money. A refugee wants to have the means to sustain him or herself and his or her family. They want to be normal persons. They don’t want to be called refugees. They just want to be a normal neighbor in any neighborhood, in a city, or a village in Romania.

Before working in Romania, I worked in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, and I had once a young refugee from Afghanistan who came to me to talk about his problems and he had a long list of complains. He said many things and I said "OK, you have a really long list, but if you had to choose one thing in which you think I can or UNHR can help you what will you choose?” And he told me something I will never forget, because he said: "You know - what I want is to become a tax payer.” And I said "A tax payer? Why would you want that? Nobody wants to pay taxes.” And he said: "If I have to pay taxes, it would mean that I have a salary, and if I have a salary it means I have a job and I can sustain my family and I wouldn’t have to come to complain to you.” And then I thought it reflected very well what refugees want – a normal life – even to become tax payers, which is something nobody likes, but paying taxes is a sign of normality.

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.