EASTERN EUROPE: Playing Dice With Migrants

  • by Claudia Ciobanu (bucharest)
  • Wednesday, December 29, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Between 2007 and 2009, the number of people lodging asylum claims in seven Central and Eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia) dropped slightly, from 20,053 to 19,388. At the same time, the number of those recognised as refugees decreased from 744 to 507.

Total acceptance rates (the vast majority of asylum-seekers receive a form of subsidiary protection) went from 20 percent to 17.9 percent. The trend continued into 2010, according to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency).

Nadia Jbour, senior regional protection officer at the UNHRC regional office in Budapest, lists several factors contributing to the declining trend in applications. Among these: low recognition rates; poor quality of reception conditions; detention of asylum seekers and would-be asylum seekers in some of the countries in the region; bleak integration prospects; lack of family reunification possibilities.

Most asylum-seekers in the region come from Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.

The fate of people seeking protection in CEE can differ widely, according to the country chosen for requesting asylum and even inside each country, says the UNHCR report, ‘Being a Refugee, How Refugees and Asylum Seekers Experience Life in Central Europe’. Data for the report was collected mainly in 2009, with some additions in 2010.

In Bulgaria asylum-seekers can face 'prolonged and irregular detention both at the borders and in the Busmantsi centre near the Sofia airport,' notes the report. Local NGOs such as the Sofia-based Assistance Centre for Torture Survivors confirm that after Bulgaria adopted EU regulations in 2008 setting the maximum detention period for asylum-seekers at six months, with 18 in exceptional cases, 18-month detention periods have been the norm rather than the exception.

Detention conditions can vary widely, even inside one country. In Hungary, only one of the four detention centres, at Gyor, has a relatively relaxed regime, allowing considerable freedom of movement inside the establishment. At the other three centres, guards routinely enforce tougher behavioural norms than stated in the official rules: administrative detention is often longer than the set 15-day maximum term, detained asylum seekers are not allowed to buy newspapers or additional food, and phone time is limited to five minutes.

In Slovakia, in the absence of unified regulations over assistance for refugees, access to language classes, housing assistance and even financial allowances are totally dependent on NGOs running such programmes, which results in unequal support.

The fate of children differs widely across the region. In Poland, over 90 percent of asylum seeker children are in school and all children have access to additional language classes and support. At the other end of the spectrum, asylum seeker children in Bulgaria are often enrolled in lower classes because they do not master the language, while at the same time lacking access to additional language support.

Housing is a major concern for all refugees in the region. In some countries such as Romania and Bulgaria, authorities are starting to include refugees on social housing lists, though these efforts are in their inception. Most often though, refugees living in CEE get caught in vicious cycles, finding it difficult to secure housing without financial guarantees, which are dependent on access to jobs, that are scarce.

UNHCR notes that in 2009, many Somali refugees started adding to the ranks of homeless people sleeping rough on the streets of big cities in Hungary. 'Homeless Hungarians may have passed up their chances, but we Somalis never had a chance in the first place,' commented one of the homeless refugees interviewed by the organisation.

'They usually hire me for a few weeks when they have a lot of work, but they never give me a regular job. For me, having one year employment is as probable as flying to the moon!' commented Gabir. He is an experienced construction engineer from Grozny, now a refugee in Poland, and can only find temporary work as a mason. In this country, receiving unemployment benefits is conditioned by having held legal employment for at least one full year.

Refugees in all countries complained that language classes are organised during working hours. Delayed mastering of the local language means diminished chances of getting anything but menial jobs.

'All CEE countries lack a clear integration strategy,' says Nadia Jbour, explaining the broad variations in the fate of refugees and asylum seekers. 'There is a lack of cross-ministerial cooperation. In most countries, where the provision of most services is the mandate of local governments, there is no cooperation between the central refugee agency and the local governments.

'Traditionally, NGOs try to fill in the gap,' adds Jbour. 'Although there is a lot of goodwill, not all NGOs have the competency to effectively provide some of the services. Many services should be in the first place secured by the governments and guaranteed in their own programmes.'

The news from the region is not all bad nevertheless. The UNHCR report notes improvements in each country since 2005, especially in living conditions and quality of food in reception centres and, in some cases, broader access to vocational training and employment guidance.

Importantly, since May 2008, Romania hosts a resettlement centre in Timisoara, west of the country, the first such establishment in the world to have a permanent nature. Since its opening, it has hosted 622 refugees (from several African countries, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Palestine) for up to six months until their relocation to the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.

'The centre represents the desire of a country that used to be a sender of asylum seekers to now share the responsibility of helping out the world’s refugees,' comments UNHCR Romania’s Claudia Liute.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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