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News 23 Aug 17

Boat Seizures Stir Romanian Fears of Refugee Influx

Two boats carrying Syrians and Iraqis seized in a week by Romanian Coast Guard in the Black Sea have raised concerns that a new migration route is opening up. 

Ana Maria Touma
BIRN
Bucharest
A group of Iraqi asylum seekers detained by Romanian Border Police in Nadlac, Western Romania, on Tuesday night, while trying to cross into Hungary. Photo: politiadefrontiera.ro

Romanian Coast Guards have seized two boats carrying Syrians and Iraqis in the Black Sea, raising concerns that a new migrant route to Europe might be opening up, after several Balkan countries closed their borders to the refugee influx.

One boat, carrying 70 Iraqis and Syrians, including 23 children, was intercepted late Sunday in the Black Sea in Romania's southeastern Constanta region.

It was the second incident in just a week, which is unusual for the region. On August 13, coastguards discovered a boat with 69 Iraqi migrants in Romanian waters. A Bulgarian and a Cypriot, as well as two Turkish citizens, were taken into custody on suspicion of human trafficking.

They were the first vessels Romanian Coast Guard have intercepted since June 2013, when a boat with 41 migrants was seized. Since then, the Romanian border police have focused on reinforcing the border with Serbia, where migrants who cross the Balkan countries usually attempt to cross the border on land with the aim of reaching Hungary and then the West.

Despite concerns, Romania does not face a massive influx, both the Romanian Border Police and EU agencies stress. However, while the numbers are still small, they are rapidly growing.

“Smuggler networks are testing new routes and one of them is the Black Sea and Romania,” a source in the Romanian Immigration Inspectorate told BIRN, seeking to remain anonymous.

“They have attempted this before; they send small groups to test the waters, and give up if they see there is little hope. Until now, we haven’t been caught off guard.”

Border Police activity reports seen by BIRN show that, in 2017, the number of people caught while illegally crossing the Romanian-Serbian border has tripled compared to the first part of 2016.

A total of 2.474 people were detained while trying to cross the border illegally in the first six months of 2017. Almost half of them were caught while trying to leave Romania for Hungary. In 2016 only 1,624 migrants were detained. Most were found trying to cross from Serbia to Romania.

According to Frontex, the EU agency managing the bloc’s response to the migration crisis, Romania is not on any route used by different nationalities to reach Western Europe.

Statistics provided by the agency show that 6,356 people crossed the borders illegally in the Balkans by the end of June 2017, but Romania is not yet on the map of countries at risk.  

However, a Frontex spokesperson told BIRN that the agency is aware of and monitors recent incidents, although it has no operations in the Black Sea. “I wouldn’t call it a trend, it’s a bit too early,” he said.

Romania has agreed to take in over 4,000 refugees relocated from Italy and Greece. It only received 710 people by August 2017, however. Most are Syrians, but there are also Iraqis, Eritreans and Yemenis.

Foreign Minister Theodor Melescanu said on August 18 that Romania has not accepted the idea of refugee quotas imposed by the European Union. However, he said that Romania had offered to host up to 2,000 out of solidarity, although its capacities are limited.

“Romania is more of a transit country, the number of refugees is relatively small, and there is more pressure on Central and Northern Europe. But we’ll do our duty as an EU member,” he said.

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