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Analysis 17 Mar 17

Refugees Face Cool Welcome in Romania, Bulgaria

Worsening relations between Turkey and Europe have raised concerns in Bulgaria andRomania that a new wave of migrants may be on the way - a prospect that both countries find daunting.

Maria Cheresheva, Lorelei Mihala
Bucharest and Sofia
Refugees held by Romanian police at its border with Serbia | Photo: Romanian Border Police

It’s early morning and in an old villa in the centre of Bucharest 12 women are chatting around a table. Aged between 20 and 40, most of them with heads covered in veils, they wait to start their weekly classes in Romanian.

The women are refugees who came to Romania in recent years, fleeing their war-torn native lands. “We are not terrorists. We are just normal people,” says Laila[not her real name], who left Aleppo in Syria some two years ago. She went first to Turkey but ended up finally in Romania, where she got refugee status.

Laila was lucky to have friends in Bucharest who helped her to find a job. Now she is learning Romanian to better integrate into the community.

“Around90 per cent of the refugees we deal with are willing to remain in Romania,” Razvan Samoila, director of ARCA, the Bucharest-based NGO for refugees and migrants where the classes are held, says.

But Romania is not an especially friendly destination for refugees. Capacities to shelter them are limited while many people oppose the very idea of taking themin.

The situation is similar in neighbouring Bulgaria.

Ankara has already hinted it might scrap the controversial deal struck with the EU to restrict migration flows through Turkey in exchange for financial aid. Bulgaria will be most directly affected by any new wave of refugees but both Bulgaria and Romania are following the growing tensions between Turkey and Europe with concern.

Hostile mood grows in Bulgaria:

In Sofia, three young Yazidi women from the city of Sinjar in Iraq chat in their room in the refugee center in the Vrazhdebna neighbourhood.

“Vrazhdebna”literally means “hostile” – an appropriate term, ironically, as hostility in Bulgaria to refugees has grown significantly since 2013, when the refugee crisis reached Bulgaria.

A recent poll by Gallup International Bulgaria, released in February, showed 73per cent of Bulgarians would approve of a ban on Muslims entering the country.

Ina sign of growing anti-refugee sentiment, locals in a number of towns aroundthe country recently protested against hosting refugees.

But between the four walls of their freshly renovated room, Maho, 19, Hlas, 20, and Dalia, 24, are not aware of any hostility in the outside world.

Having escaped the risk of being kidnapped, tortured and used as sex slaves by ISIS soldiers, the fate experienced by many of their schoolmates, and having spent three years in a tent refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, they finally feel safe.

“We feel calm and safe in Bulgaria,” Maho says, before admitting that Bulgaria is just a short pit stop on her way to Germany, where part of her family lives already.

“We cannot remain in Bulgaria. We are single girls,”she adds, shaking nervously.

All three girls quit school in order to escape ISIS and remember only fear and misery from the three years since leaving their hometown.

In Germany, they hope to finish their education and go on with their lives. “If we ever reach it,” Maho says, bitterly.

Number of illegal migrants is rising:

Bulgaria and Romania are mainly transit countries on the Balkan routes for refugees. Both countries last year saw an increased number of illegal immigrants on their borders.

Romanian official data show that 1,624 people tried illegally to cross Romania last year, most of them through the borders with Serbia and Bulgaria. Some 140 were identified as smugglers, police chief commissioner Bogdan Budeanu, from the General Inspectorate of Border Police in Romania, says.

In Bulgaria, the number of people arrested trying to illegally cross the borderswas far larger - 18,844 were caught by law-enforcement authorities last year.

The majority, 9,267, were nabbed inside the country, meaning they had successfully crossed the border without getting noticed.

Almost 5,000 people were arrested exiting the country, mostly to Serbia, while a small number, 216, tried to leave Bulgaria through its northern border with Romania.

The two countries are working together to stop irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkan route, with help from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

On Bulgaria’s border with Serbia, all ten Frontex border guards are Romanian, while on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey, 21 of the 68 policemen are from Romania.

Poor conditions for refugees:

While the “corridor”along the Balkans, which once allowed refugees to head to Western Europe, is now closed, EU member states in the region remain a target for people coming from trouble zones.

Of some 1,886 people who applied for asylum status in Romania last year alone,most were from Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Another 554 migrants were relocated from Greece and Italy to Romania under the EU-imposed quota scheme aimedat easing Europe’s refugee crisis.

Romania has agreed to receive around 4,200 refugees in total, according to a decision made by EU interior ministers in September 2015.

The country is also to open three new centres for refugees, in addition to the existing six, which have a total capacity for only 1,500 places, according to official data from Border police.

Bucharest has improved its standards related to newcomers in recent years but still has much to do. One problem is the funds alloted to a particular asylum seeker, who receive only some 4 euros per day for food and basic needs. Some extra money is alloted for clothes and healthcare.

Bulgaria is even in a most delicate situation. Ten times more people have applied for asylum there over the last year, 19,418 people, 45 per cent of whom were from Afghanistan. Over 1,300 were granted asylum, while another nearly 9,000 had their asylum procedures cancelled – often meaning that they had left the country before the State Agency for the Refugees had decided on their status.They were using the country just for transit.

Mohamed and his family in Vrazhdebna refugee center. Photo: BIRN

The poor conditions that the two countries offer to asylum seekers are the main reasons why refugees prefer not to settle there but to continue their journey to richer EU states such as Germany, Sweden or the UK.

“We will leave for Germany – for the future of our children. Bulgaria is a poor country, however you work, the money will not be enough for two families”, Mohamed, from the Syrian city of Hasaka, told BIRN.

He ended up in the Vrazhdebna refugee camp together with his wife Birivan and her small daughter and his widowed sister Shirin, a mother of two.

Although the European Commission granted Bulgaria 160million euros in crisis aid to manage the refugee crisis, asylum seekers do not benefit much from that, as over 90 per cent of the budget was dedicated to securing the country’s borders.

The State Agency for the Refugees received 3.6 million euros to provide food and services for the asylum seekers accommodated in the reception centers it runs,but no funding has been allocated for integration activities.

Since the beginning of 2014, the country has had no operational integration programme,meaning that after being granted protection, refugees receive no state supportfor housing, language courses, careers and cultural orientation.

Without this much-needed assistance, they are forced to either overstay their time in refugee camps, having nowhere to go, or leave the country – as the majority chooses to do.

Backin the classroom of ARCA, refugees in Romania are coping with many difficulties in everyday life. Amal [not her real name], a Kurdish refugee from Syria, says in theory she has the same rights as any other Romanian, except the right to vote,but in reality faces many restrictions.

“Banksdon’t allow me to open a bank account. I assume this is because I am a Syriancitizen,” she says. “I want people to treat us like any other,” she adds.

This article was produced as part of a project funded by the Black SeaTrust for Regional Cooperation.

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