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Crisis of migration, a Romanian perspective

Recently, The Supreme National Defense Council (SNDC) included on the agenda of the July 4 meeting an information on the issue of “the phenomenon of migration and the main measures implemented at national level”. The news has somewhat surprised the unseen public, especially since the issue in question is not one of the most debated in public life, Romanian society being much more interested in the social-economic evolution of the country, the good course of justice and the permanent political disputes existing between the Social Democrat and Liberal Democratic ruling coalition and the President, who is also considered as a leader of the right-wing opposition.

That is exactly what I consider to be a good moment to briefly review Romania’s position on the issue of migration, particular to the refuge’ crisis and the analysis, also in short, of the possible effects it may have on national security and safety.

First of all, it should be mentioned that, after 1989, the immigration flows to Romania did not reach alarming levels, their number being influenced by the evolution of the economic situation, respectively by Romania’s accession to NATO and the European Union. For example, in the decade 2001-2010, the annual figures of permanent immigrants were between a minimum of 2,987 in 2004 and a maximum of 10,124 in 2010. Thus, at the end of the decade, 59,358 foreigners were registered in Romania with legal residence, of which 49,282 with temporary stay permits and 10,076 with permanent residence. From the perspective of the countries of origin, most foreigners with temporary residence came from the Republic of Moldova (17,091), Turkey (7,179) and China (4,752), and with permanent residence in China (2,360), Turkey (1,864) and Syria (993).[i]  However, the latest report of the National Institute of Statistics records immigrants with 126,777 immigrants,[ii] which questions either the quoted report or the registration procedure, or both.

From the perspective of authorities, a much greater concern was the illegal immigration, with Romania being used primarily as a transit country to Western European states. Thus, during the same period, the number of entry/exit attempts in/out the country, discovered by the border authorities, ranged from a minimum of 846 attempts in 2010 to a maximum of 1,842 attempts in 2002.[iii] It should be noted that the exit attempts were steadily higher (In some years almost four times higher) and especially that they were committed mainly by persons based in Romania on the basis of a short-stay visa or by persons illegally entering the country but who have applied for refugee status. The concern of the authorities over these issues is understandable given the intrinsic link between illegal immigration and trafficking in human beings.

The real challenge for Romania in the field of immigration has arisen with the eruption of the refugee crisis in Europe, not because of the pressure of the refugees themselves, but in the foreign policy plan, by the position that Romania has adopted in the European Union in September 2015, with the occasion of the discussion on mandatory refugee quotas, held in Brussels, in the Council for Justice and Home Affairs.

Surprisingly, Romania, a traditional partner of the tough nucleus represented by France and Germany, opposed the mandatory quota, being the only along with Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia to do so. There was no doubt a decision for the audience at home, but even today, I did not understand how and why, in unison, the President, the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister made this decision, crawling fiercely with a number of 1,785 refugees which Romania could accept, a number that had already been agreed, although it was clear that the adopted position would unnecessarily inflate relations with the Commission and the main supporters of binding quotas and put the country in an uncomfortable position in subsequent, much more important debates. More, taking in consideration that decision was taken under the qualified majority mechanism, there were no chances that it will not pass.

The decision taken in Brussels was in line with the attitude of the Romanian leaders, the country receiving 1,705 refugees from the first resettlement mechanism, another 2,475 from the first stage of the second resettlement mechanism (a total of 4,120 refugees) and a reconfigured number for the second resettlement stage to 6025 refugees. And what is clear now, and it was also then, is that these odds can no longer be negotiated, even more so they may eventually be revised upwards. The fact that Romania accepted the resettlement for only 1034 refugees[iv] is almost irrelevant.

As I have already said, Romania’s intransigent position in these negotiations seems incomprehensible to many domestic analysts, the only logical explanation being only due to the lack of enthusiasm of the domestic population in supporting the resettlement of refugees, an element which, apparently, the politicians have taken with priority into account, in the face of possible negative effects on relations within the EU.

In fact, a post-factum study in the first half of 2016[v] confirmed this hypothesis, with 54% of respondents to a sociological research voicing disagreement over the presence of refugees in Romania.[vi] It is very interesting why more than half of Romanians do not accept refugees? The main reasons they invoke are “the fear of the outbreak of violence or social warfare”, “cultural differences and habits” of refugees compared to the European population, and “possible economic instability” at national and/or European level. Thus, 30.5% of respondents associate the crisis of refugees with religious conflicts, 44.5% with conflicts or social warfare, and only 18.5% consider this crisis only as a momentary disorder with immediate and unimportant consequences.[vii]

Now, if we have seen what is the immigrant’ situation and, how Romania played its cards in September 2015, it is time to talk about how prepared it is to cope with the challenges of this crisis. Paradoxically, Romania is even prepared in this direction or, anyway, much more prepared than many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. I make this statement on the basis of obvious facts and I will try to demonstrate this further.

First of all, it is worth mentioning that the national legislation in the field is clear and fully aligned with the international standards, and the legislation favorizes the building up of the necessary bodies for efficient management of the phenomenon. Thus, Romania adhered to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugee Status and its Additional Protocol of 1967, by Law no. 46/1991, and has a Law on Asylum (Law 122/2006), which makes it clear and established the legal regime of aliens claiming a form of protection in Romania, the legal status of foreign beneficiaries of a form of protection and specific procedures. Based on the latest law, the Romanian Immigration Office was established, which combined the responsibilities of the Authority for Foreigners, the National Refugee Office and the Office for Migration of the Labor Force, thus facilitating the process by which aliens are highlighted, protected or, as the case may be, integrated into the Romanian society. It should be noted that the asylum law was adopted precisely to meet EU standards in the field, and since its first adoption it has been fined almost every year to comply with new provisions of European law.

The existing legislation has also allowed the development of a dedicated refugee infrastructure. Thus, Romania hosts the Timisoara Emergency Transit Center since 2008, the first institution of its kind in the world, that offers temporary accommodation to refugees in need of emergency evacuation from the first country of asylum, until their relocation to third countries (the Center can host 200 immigrants in transit and 50 asylum seekers. Since its inception in 2008, the Center housed more than 2,000 people, contributing to the implementation of UNHCR’s protection policy.[viii] Besides, there are five other Centers of Procedures and Accommodation for Asylum Seekers, distributed in a balanced manner throughout the country.

A second important asset for Romania is the inexistence of extremist parties. Such messages, even if they appear sporadic, have no echoes in the great mass of the population. Even the parties that displayed electoral programs with a clear nationalist tune were not successful at the last elections, remaining outside Parliament, except the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, the Union constantly holds between 5 and 6% of the seats into Legislative, but here it is understandable, corresponding to the share of the population of Hungarian origin.

A third argument in favor of Romania is given by the measures taken for the fulfillment of the Schengen acquis, which allowed the harmonization of the legislative framework, the improvement of the institutional framework, the development of the infrastructure, the improvement of the procedures and the personnel. Although Romania fully meets these conditions, and this for a long time, the EU states continue to keep it out of the Schengen area, as well as Bulgaria, for reasons that in reality have nothing to do with the mentioned acquis. But the Romanians have a proverb: “any harm is for good”, so the measures taken for the accession to the space according to the “National Strategy for Accession to the Schengen Area for 2008-2011”, even if they did not bring the accession, contributed to the consolidation of the country’s border control, implicitly of the EU. In order to be clear about what Romania represents for the EU borders, we have to mention that Romania has practically controlled over 2,000 km of EU’s external border, with a traffic of more than 54 million citizens and over 19 million vehicles only in 2016.[ix]

In the same year, the Romanian border guards detected in the area of ​​competence 1,624 foreign citizens who attempted to cross the border illegally, of which 1,075 on the way of entering the country and 549 in the exit direction, many of them acting illegally within group of migrants with the support of traffickers (351 migrant groups were identified and 140 traffickers/facilitators were identified). Most of them came from states like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kosovo, Albania, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Egypt.[x] If we add that “Romania is the second contributor to operations on the maritime border in the Mediterranean area, with the participation of ships and personnel (…)”[xi] and that the Romanian border guards support the Bulgarian partners through their effective presence at the borders with Turkey and Serbia, we can make a much more complete picture of what the Romanian effort means in the crisis of migration and refugees.

Finally, without this being the last argument, there is one that can denote a dose of self-government, but it is true that Romania does not have a high degree of attractiveness for refugees, because on the one hand the accommodation capacity is limited, and on the other hand, the welfare allocated per refugee are far from those granted by the Western European states.

However, 1,889 asylum applications were received in 2016, most of them being from Syria (816), Iraq (472), Pakistan (93) and Afghanistan (80), and in the first five months of 2017 – there were 1,708 asylum applications. Referring only to refugees, so far, 634 people (45 in Italy and 589 in Greece) have been transferred, with the total number of refugees resettled in Romania having to reach the European Commission’s provisions, and pressures, to over 3,000 in this autumn.

After all, one might raise a question: and yet there are risks to Romania? And because the simple answer: Yes! may be insufficient, I make a brief overview with the clear mention that it represents my own opinion, even if, sometimes, I will support it with concrete official data.

Yes, the refugee crisis can seriously affect Romania’s security and safety.

First of all, it is the pressure that a massive refugee flow can create at the country’s borders. Even if, as we have seen, Romania’s attractiveness does not amount to Western European countries, the deterioration of Turkey-EU relations and the overcoming of Greece’s response capacity can activate a Central Balkan route that refugees would prefer to the traditional one, the West Balkan.

As illegal crossing of the Black Sea requires ships with adequate technical performance and the Romanian-Bulgarian fluvial border is difficult to achieve without risking the life or being captured, such a variant would have been the land border with Serbia, where refugees, stopped by the fence built up by Hungary and the extreme measures taken by Croatia and Austria, would try to penetrate the community space. Even if for Romania, from a conceptual and legal perspective, it is only a transit migration, it would exceed the existing shelter capabilities of the country and the funds allocated to refugee support, especially since it is expected that the response to the asylum requests to a third state to take long, indisputably over the length of time for which national legislation provides support.

With this in mind, it should be borne that such variant would immediately result in the activation of multinational networks of traffickers, which would certainly automatically associate trafficking in human beings, juvenile trafficking, juvenile delinquency, cross-border prostitution and many other aspects of criminal nature.

A second risk factor would be the concentration of large populations of refugees in particular areas, where, according to the experience already proven in Western European countries, they will be organized according to their own rules and customs, which will undoubtedly inflate relations with the native population. Although Romanians are recognized as a very hospitable and tolerant nation, they are equally devoted to their own social and cultural values, and every touch of them is perceived as an affront and an attack on the person, even before being considered as an attack on the nation’s unity. Perhaps, 45% of respondents to the study mentioned earlier have associated refugees receiving with social conflicts or war. As long as refugees remain in small groups, their integration into society is favored, and even the existence of cultural differences is faded by their low number.

In the same logic of lived experience, one should also mention the lack of appetite of assisted refugees to integrate and work as long as support allowances flow, which would add some fuel to the discontent of the native population described above. Even though my previous claim suffers from a lack of political correctness, it is clear that the image of people who do nothing, no matter how objective is the reasons for choosing the way of refuge, cannot find sympathy in a country where 10% of the population has emigrated to find a better paid job.

Thirdly, returning to the Pro-Democracy study, it should not be forgotten that 31% of the respondents associated the reception of refugees with religious conflicts. Romania does not have an official religion,[xii] but given the religious orientation of its citizens, we can say that it is a Christian country where Orthodox religion is the majority (86.45% of the population), but alongside it officially coexists, equal and without any restrains other religions and cults, including Muslim religion (0.34% of the population).[xiii]

Thus, Islamic radicalism, possibly “imported” with the reception of refugees from Muslim areas, could be another risk factor associated with the refugee crisis. The Romanian authorities are quite discreet in presenting data on Islamic radicalism on the territory of the country and we can conclude that it is at a minimum. Equally, news releases of the competent authorities appear in the press about the expulsion of some foreign citizens proven to have relations with radical Muslim organizations. Their existence in a rather well-controlled social environment can only confirm that such examples are more than possible in closed Muslim communities that may still contain radicalization agents.

Their possible actions in relation to the native population and national infrastructure are undoubtedly another factor of risk, especially in the present days when the United States is the omnipresent and nominated enemy of Islamic radicalism, and Romania is one of the most devoted allies of the Americans in Europe, if not the most devoted.

Finally, without claiming that we have exhausted the absence of risk factors and threats, we should not neglect the collateral effects that refugee negotiations within the European Union can have on the real national objective of narrowing the gaps towards developed countries Romania has, as well as the additional costs that a massive refugee population would generate over the budget of the security, public order and national defense structures, against the expense of their own development and modernization.

In this context, the statements of President Klaus Iohannis at the end of the CSAT meeting from which we have started the analysis begin to make sense: “We have analyzed … the evolution of the phenomenon of migration, in particular, the illegal migration. This phenomenon that unexpectedly intensified in 2015, is not something extraordinary since a long time, but it has become something we have to face daily. And this is my message … to get out of the paradigm that we are talking about a time-limited crisis and preparing to cope with long time further. We have data from the European Union and the services we are working with … there is no indication that this migration pressure will diminish. We still have, in particular, out of Africa, signs that have to keep up the alert. Unfortunately, we do not have positive signals about the war in Syria. Ministry of Interior have to be prepared for those who will illegally attempt to enter the territory of our country, but also for those who will be relocated based on the decision taken at European level.”[xiv]


[i] According to National Office for Immigration in ALEXE, Iris. PAUNESCU, Bogdan – coordinators, “Studiu asupra fenomenului imigratiei in Romania. Integrarea strainilor in societatea romaneasca” [Study on immigration phenomenon in Romania. The integration of foreigners into Romanian Society ], Bucuresti, Fundatia Soros, 2011. pp. 26-30.

[ii] Communique of The National Institute of Statistics on Residency and International Migration. 1 January 2016. http://www.insse.ro/cms/ro/tags/comunicat-populatia-rezidenta-si-migratia-internationala.

[iii] According to the General Inspectorate of the Border Police in ALEXE I, PAUNESCU B. pp. 33-35.

[iv] Presidency Press Release, after the meeting on The Supreme National Defense Council, 4 July 2017, http://www.presidency.ro/ro/media/comunicate-de-presa/sedinta-consiliului-suprem-de-aparare-a-tarii1499171937.

[v] The study was carried out with the support of the ARCI Italy Association and the Pro-Democratia Association, within the PEU-DEM project, funded by the European Commission. (N.A.).

[vi] IACOB, Andrei & collective, “Raport privind perceptia romanilor despre criza refugiatilor” [Report on Romanians perception about the crisis of refugees], AsociaČ›ia Pro DemocraČ›ia, BucureČ™ti, 2016, p.40.

[vii] Ibidem, p.41.

[viii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Press Release, June 20, 2016, https://www.agerpres.ro/comunicate/2017/06/20/ comunicat-de-presa-mae-16-03-20.

[ix] Report on the activity of the General Inspectorate of the Border Police in 2016. https://www.politiadefrontiera.ro

[x] Ibidem.

[xi] Teodor Melescanu, proposed as foreign affairs minister, during his hearing in parliamentary committees on foreign policy. https://www.agerpres.ro/politica/2017/06/29/melescanu.

[xii] The Constitution of Romania: “Freedom of thought and opinion, as well as the freedom of religious beliefs cannot be restricted in any way. No one can be compelled to adopt an opinion or adhere to a religious belief contrary to his beliefs.”

[xiii] The National Institute of Statistics, “Ce ne spune recensaƒma˘ntul din 2011 despre religie” [What says the 2011 census about religion], BucureČ™ti, 2013, p.5.

[xiv] Klaus Iohannis, The President of Romania, Press Statement, 4 July 2017, http://csat.presidency.ro/?pag=46&id=14446.

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