Policy Blog: quantifying the Romanian asylum system

12 March 2018

Bucharest, 12 March 2018 – JRS Europe Policy and Advocacy Officer, Claudia Bonamini, visited JRS Romania 20-23 February. Here, she shares her observations about the asylum system in the country.

By Claudia Bonamini, JRS Europe Policy and Advocacy Officer

Despite working for over ten years on European asylum issues, I realised I knew very little about refugee issues in Romania, besides having vaguely heard about an increase in arrivals through the Black Sea a couple of times in the recent years. A quick google search before leaving did not bring up much more information. During my visit I quickly understood why: despite being at the external borders of the EU (Romania counts five bordering countries) the country has so far not been an important entry point for asylum seekers.

Between 2008 and 2016 the country registered an average of 1,500 asylum application per year. In 2017, though, the applications peaked, reaching more than 4,000 applications. Still, a small number compared to other European countries, but the highest ever registered by Romania. In a time when more ‘traditional’ refugee routes, such as the Turkish-Greek one or the Central Mediterranean one, are being heavily guarded, one is left wondering if this might be the beginning of a new route. 

Time will tell. But is the country prepared should that happen? In a time in which many discussions at the European level are about fair redistribution of asylum seekers, would the country be ready to take its fair share? And will refugees start perceiving Romania as a destination country rather than a transit one?

On reception conditions and funding

Reception conditions differ considerably from one reception centre to another, but I have been told they are overall sufficient. The centre I visited in Bucharest, the biggest and for what I have heard, one of the best, besides having the kind of sad aura typical of all collective centres I have visited (including where the infrastructure is newer or more modern), is indeed sufficient. Each room, for four people, has its own small bathroom and there is a shared kitchen on each corridor for residents to prepare their own meals. NGOs, such as JRS Romania and Save the Children, are present in the centre every day and there is clearly a positive cooperation between them and the centre’s management and integration officers. 

However, with just six reception facilities in the whole country, and about 900 places in total, capacity is low. The system now works because in practice only few asylum seekers stay for a long time. The majority quickly leave the country and try to reach other EU destinations. Should arrivals increase and people (be forced to) stay, there would most likely be a problem. 

Moreover, the whole immigration and asylum system seems to be understaffed. There are currently only 12 officers in charge of deciding on asylum applications in the whole country, when there should be 40. There is a high turnover in the administration, which is not conducive for the specialisation on asylum issues. This fact also puts a question mark on the resilience of the system should numbers rise.

It is also remarkable that the government seems to have contracted all basic social services for asylum seekers to NGOs, funding them through the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). On the one hand structural involvement of NGOs for the provision of services is common in many European countries and leads to good practices and good service provision. On the other hand, the Romanian situation is problematic on different levels. The government is not investing in going beyond the minimum service provision and is not building up well-functioning services. Using solely AMIF funds to finance service provision also poses challenges for NGOs, in terms of sustainability of the work, but also because of difficulties in providing the necessary co-funding and covering overhead costs that the fund does not cover. 

This means NGOs in Romania are extremely dependent on very conditioned public funding, which is a challenge for their independence. I do not know the economic and political reality of the country enough to assess to what extent Romania truly does not have means to invest, in which case EU financial solidarity shows all its necessity, or what role are political choices play in keeping the situation as it is. The fact is that higher numbers of asylum seekers and refugees would certainly require higher efforts and investment from the government side.

On integration

This is also true when it comes to integration. Although positive steps have been taken, with the creation of an integration programme including Romanian classes and extra financial support for up to 9 months after obtaining a refugee status and the opening of integration centres throughout the country, Romania seems to be resigned to the fact that there is no point in investing too much in integration-oriented activities, because people do not want to stay anyway, failing to see (or deliberately ignoring) that people leave because they feel Romania has not much to offer them.

Unfortunately, prejudices and discrimination are widespread and that adds an extra obstacle for refugees who decide to stay, as finding a house or a job becomes even more difficult. Civil society is working to combat this through various community building initiatives, like those mapped by JRS Romania as part of the I Get You campaign.  However, it seems unlikely that Romania will soon become a destination, rather than a transit country for asylum seekers. 

On cooperation

To conclude on a positive note, I must say that despite all the challenges  I was positively impressed by the openness of the representative of public authorities I had the chance to meet. They all seemed to be genuinely trying to improve existing conditions for asylum seekers and refugees and were themselves frustrated by the lack of investments. The role of civil society was clearly valued and respected. I strongly hope this will remain the case, even if the country were to see a significant increase in arrivals.

In a time in which many discussions at the European level are about fair redistribution of asylum seekers, would the country be ready to take its fair share? And will refugees start perceiving Romania as a destination country rather than a transit one?