Arab refugees receive a cold welcome in Romania

Arab refugees receive a cold welcome in Romania
In-depth: Romania is far from experiencing a “migration crisis” on the Black Sea, experts say, while aid workers and refugees say the country needs better integration policies.
5 min read
22 September, 2017
A boatload of refugees are intercepted by the Romanian coastguard on September 13 [AFP]
Ahmad – not his real name – said he has been in Romania for almost three months. The 25 year-old left Aleppo in the Autumn 2015, after Islamic State attacked amid a steady bombardment of barrel bombs by the Russian and Syrian armies.

His family, he says, was rather well off before the war - his father owned two buildings - but the buildings were destroyed and his father died during one air-raid. His brother went missing. Ahmad took his wife and mother and left for Turkey.

Ahmad says he struggled with the thought of taking a boat to Greece for a year out of fear. At the beginning of 2017 however, he finally reached out to a fellow Syrian in Istanbul, paid a Syrian smuggler $7000 and - sometime at the end of May - left his pregnant wife and mother in Turkey to set off through Bulgaria.

"I was pretty terrified the whole journey. We went on a minibus through Bulgaria, the driver could have left us anywhere, at anytime," he said.

The deal they made with the guide was to reach Germany, where he has friends who survived the trip through the Mediterranean. The group was caught after they crossed into Romania. The Bulgarian guide was arrested and the Syrians were sent to one of the country's six asylum centers.

Romania has received 3,300 refugees, including the arrivals on the Black Sea and those relocated from Greece

There are over 4,000 Syrians like Ahmad who reached Romania in 2017, according to the local authorities. Approximately 500 of them were rescued by the Romanian coast guard from the Black Sea after a dangerous 950-mile journey from Turkish ports to the Romanian coast in August.

Romania is currently in negotiations to join the Schengen zone, the area of free movement across Europe. These boats had raised short-lived fears in the Eastern European country that the deal might be affected - that the Black Sea might be the new route to Europe, after Greece and Turkey have made a deal with Brussels to stop the route in the Aegean Sea.  

But the Black Sea is far from witnessing a refugee crisis, with winter approaching and Turkish security forces patrolling its ports to curb refugee smuggling. Romania has seen over 4,000 people, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and some Iranians, crossing its borders from Bulgaria and Serbia.

Many have also been detected by the Romanian authorities trying to cross into Hungary hidden in trucks, trains or small cars. The Romanian Border Police have been reporting at least three groups per week.

In mid-August, a group of Syrians and Iraqis desperately tried to cross a police barrier at the Romanian-Hungarian border and crashed into a police car after the law enforcement agents fired bullets in the air to stop them.

For Romania, this year's migrant numbers and incidents are at an all-time high. 2016 witnessed three times fewer refugees and migrants, according to official statistics, and the sudden rise in numbers has raised fears of a new "wave of migration" or even a "refugee invasion," despite reassurances by international organizations that Romania is far from witnessing a crisis.

"This is not a crisis, nor a wave," UNHCR Romania spokeswoman Gabriela Leu said.

"Romania has received 3,300 refugees, including the arrivals on the Black Sea and those relocated from Greece," she pointed out.

But Leu also points out the local press' usage of the words "crisis" and "wave" has created an alarmist mood that has created a "wave of hostility" towards the country's refugees.

'Not hostile'

Mazen Rifai is a Syrian writer, living in Romania since 2008. He also runs an NGO that helps 350 refugees.

Rifai told The New Arab that Romania, is actually not as hostile to Arab refugees as neighboring countries, Bulgaria or Hungary. This despite a number of reported instances of harassment on public transportation and a 2016 attack where two women had their veils ripped off. According to Rifai however, these were all isolated incidents caused by personal frictions - not racism.

"In Romania, girls can wear the veil at school and nobody has a problem with it," he pointed out.

"I'm not saying that there aren't people who are trying to create problems, but they are not as many as they might seem," he pointed out.

Rifai said that the biggest problem in Romania is not nationalism, but the lack of proper integration policies.

Ahmad says it's unlikely that he will stay in a country where the average monthly salary is 500 Euros ($600) because he doesn't see a way to support his family.

Each refugee granted asylum in Romania receives a monthly allowance of approximately 130 Euros ($155) for up to 6 months and is entitled to Romanian language classes - which Rifai argues is far too little.

"In Western Europe they get help to learn the language, they get qualification courses to get a job. In Romania they have nothing like this," he says.

Ahmad says it's unlikely that he will stay in a country where the average monthly salary is 500 Euros ($600) because he doesn't see a way to support his family.

Although he hasn't been in the country long enough to experience any actual racism, he said he found people distant and unwelcoming.

"In Greece, people greeted the refugees and offered shelter. Here, it's the police handling everything and all the humanitarian aid comes from other Arabs," he said.

Ana Maria Luca is a Romanian journalist and a member of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

You can follow her on Twitter: @aml1609