By Nidžara Ahmetašević
In 2020, the arrival of people to Romania from neighbouring countries increased by 238 percent. The situation for people on the move in Romania thus represents one of the most recent noteworthy shifts on the Balkan Route, which is explored in this article.
Together with a group of friends from Afghanistan, Ali (20), left Greece in September last year hoping to reach his family in Germany. They – mother, father, and his younger sister – had left in 2018, and Ali was supposed to come immediately after. But it took him over two years, including more than six months in the Balkans and countless numbers of pushbacks from the EU borders, to cross from one EU country to another, and to be able to hug his closest family members again.
From Greece, Ali went to North Macedonia, then to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the aim to continue to Croatia. The first time he went for the “game”, an attempt to irregularly cross state borders, he and his friends tried from Bosnia to Croatia in September last year, only to be violently pushed back. It was just one of many attempts to enter this EU member state over the next few months. Each time they were pushed back, again and again, and every time they were beaten, their belongings taken away and destroyed.
At some point, in the spring of 2021, tired of the beatings and humiliation they went through in Croatia, the small group decided to go back to Serbia and to try a new route – through Romania to Hungary, and further on to Austria, hoping to reach Germany. They crossed the river Drina, between Serbia and Bosnia – one more time – and headed toward Timișoara, the city closest to the border in Romania.
“We entered Romania from Serbia and started walking,” Ali recalls. “After maybe four hours, we were stopped by the police. We were not in the city or village, but just on the road, walking. They approached us, did not ask anything, but just grabbed us, put us in the car, and drove back to the border area. At some point during the journey, they pulled us out from the car, and started beating.”
One of my friends got more beatings that the rest of us. We could see blood on him. At that moment, the police stopped, and we tried to help him. We were very afraid he was going to die. He looked so bad. Before they let us go, they took all we had, bags, mobiles… everything, and burned all of it. Then they just told us to go back to Serbia. And we walked back.” Ali and his friends, went back to Bosnia one more time. After a few weeks, they started another journey, again towards Croatia. Finally, at the end of April, they made it and left the Balkans. They will remember, Ali said, good people they met, as much as bad police, and horrors from the borders.
The shift at the Balkan Route
Ali is just one of many people who over the last couple of months decided to try the “game” through Romania, but was violently pushed back. Only in March this year, the UNHCR registered 991 collective expulsions from Romania to Serbia. Last year, according to the same source, the total number of recorded pushbacks from Romania was 13,409. Organisations working in Serbia with people on the move, daily encounter those who came back after the violent pushbacks. Asylum Protection Centre (APC) is just one of the organisations recording the cases. In May, they tweeted about Hamid from Morocco, who was beaten by the Romanian border police with sticks so severely, that months after he is still forced to use a stick for walking.
In addition, organisations working with people on the move from both the Romanian and Serbian side of the border, have registered that those stopped by the police are often kept for a couple of days in a container like facilities, before being transferred to one of six overcrowded centres across the country, or pushed-back. While kept in these premises, people do not have access to showers or running water and have only two mobile toilets. For years Romania, even though an EU member state but like Croatia not yet Schengen country, stayed outside of the Balkan Route or was rarely used.
Instead of Romania, people were heading from Greece, through North Macedonia and Serbia, toward Hungary and Croatia, further on to Slovenia and Italy. In 2016, the borders were sealed with walls, wires, and violence, first from the Hungarian side, and then even Croatian. The route changed its direction at the end of 2017, and turned towards Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia). Official statistics show that over 75,000 people entered this country over the last three years. Bosnia, a non-EU country, with weak governance and rule of law, did little to meet the needs of people who entered the country.
In 2018, the EU decided to make the International Organization for Migration (IOM) their main partner in Bosnia, awarding them with about 100 million euros in the name of assisting the state with “migration management”. Part of the money went to the creation of eight centres, which are overcrowded and provide only basic living conditions, contrary to the existing laws demanding “human and dignified” accommodation. Nevertheless, faced with the poor living conditions and having no possibility to regulate their status due to difficulties in access to asylum, most of the people decide to leave and head towards northern Europe. But, they are often violently prevented from reentering the EU.
The Asylum Information Database (AIDA) indicates that in 2020 the number of people entering Romania and applying for protection status increased by 238 percent, compared to 2019. The increase is noticeable also in the number of minors traveling alone. In 2019 the authorities registered 189 unaccompanied children, while in 2020 the number rose to 980.
Degrading living conditions
In Timișoara, the city closest to the border with Serbia, it became easy to spot people on the streets since last autumn. According to local activists, in May 2021, at least 300 people were living in the streets of this city. Currently two groups, the NGO Logs Social Initiatives Grup (Logs), and self-organised collective Dreptul la Oraș (The Right to the City) – alongside many locals – are actively involved in providing support for people on the move. Both groups agree that the situation, with the pandemic, and the increase in the number of arrivals, became very difficult, and it is becoming harder to respond to all the needs of the people.
“Generally, we had about 2000 registered entries per year until the last winter,” members of Dreptul la Oraș told RRE, comparing it between 500 and 1000 people who are registered per month during this year. Flavius Ilioni from LOGS remembers that the hardest period so far was the end of November last year when both organisations could not respond to all the needs of people who were on the streets. But, Ilioni remembers that the local community, people from Timișoara, joined them, showing enormous solidarity. Beside the increase in the number of people, the additional burden on everyone came with the pandemic and lockdown measures.
As in the other parts of the Balkans, and Europe in general, a lockdown was often used for the increase of different security measures toward various groups of people, and very often to those on the move. Constant raids, often violent, suddenly became a daily occurrence in Timișoara, especially after a new round of lockdown in spring 2021. For LOGS it means the way in which they worked changed a lot. Before, they used to organise public distributions of food and non-food items.
This has become difficult over the last couple of months, so they came up with a solution and started distributing food vouchers to people living in the streets of Timișoara, and opening the daily centre with showers and washing facilities. However, due to the increased security measures, and raids on the streets of Timișoara, it became less safe. “It was hard to watch when the police entered our space and took people from the center,” Flavius recalls the incident that happened this April. In addition to these local groups in Timișoara and the UNHCR, at the state level, two more organisations are active when it comes to migrants and refugees.
The Romanian National Council for Refugees, the main UNHCR partner, focused on access and the right to asylum, as well as the integration of the people who were awarded with the status. The Council and the UNHCR were successful in their efforts to provide vaccines to asylum seekers at the national level, and the process is ongoing.The Centru de Documentare şi Cercetare în Domeniul Integrării Imigranţilor (Research and Information Center on Immigrant Integration) is another active organisation, which aims to be a connection point for all who are doing research and different activities in Romania, in relation to migration.
At the moment, besides increased violence and pushbacks, a problem many face in Romania is overcrowded accommodation centres. The increase in the number of people became a real issue in the accommodation centres, with the full capacity being about 1,100. Six centres – located in Timișoara, Şomcuta Mare, Rădăuţi, Galaţi, Bucharest, Giurgiu – currently cannot accept all the people who are in need of shelter. Beside centres, people can stay in private accommodation, with the government’s permission, and at their own cost.
People who are granted status can stay up to 12 months in centre. But, when they leave, they are often faced with a number of issues to find accommodation. Dreptul la Oraș is assisting them with this issue, with special attention given to the LGBTQI+, and women travelling alone. The group helps several families who are living outside of the centre, covering their medical expenses, food, rent as well as other basic needs, among other activities.
Until recently, the accommodation centres in Romania were in relatively good condition, but the sudden increase of new arrivals turned them into overcrowded and unconditional places. People are forced to use unclean facilities, some are sleeping on the floor, while it has become common that different categories are mixed together. Flavius Ilioni describes the conditions of the camps as “dramatic”, and is worried that the authorities are not doing enough to improve it.
“Conditions are important to motivate people to stay,” he claims that by keeping substandard conditions, it is the easiest way for the government to say that people do not want to stay in the country. “Instead of that, they should do more to improve conditions. My narrative was always – what to do to motivate people to consider Romania. It is a safe country, and when it comes to asylum, Romania can be a possibility.”
Nevertheless, recently public pressure has made the authorities engage more, promising to improve living conditions in the centres. Additionally, the general atmosphere significantly changed following an incident in March of this year when, after a fight, one migrant was killed. This incident was used by the authorities to introduce additional restrictive measures, while at the same time the language used by the media when reporting about migrants became more hostile, affecting public opinion. Activists and volunteers on the streets of Timișoara state that raids are constant, and if found, people are usually delivered to the border police, or in a number of cases, sent back to Serbia.
Activists from Romania claim that lots of things changed even before the incident, especially with the pandemic. One change that affects all, especially people on the move and those supporting them, is the fact that the local police, which used to be under the local authorities, is now under the state authorities, as well as the border police. The state Ministry of Internal Affairs has under its jurisdiction the General Inspectorate for Immigration (IGI), which is responsible for the asylum procedure, as well as for the reception centres, and detention units.
When it comes to asylum, the procedures are slow, and not many positive decisions are issued. Last year, 861 decisions were issued, out of which 17 refugee statuses and 14 subsidiary protection statuses were granted, but 729 applications were rejected. In total, 6,158 applications were filed in 2020. Most of the people who were awarded with the status were from Syria and Iraq. Nevertheless, activists from Romania claim that the state changed the practice of issuing asylum for people from Syria during the last year and started giving subsidiary protection instead.
“The reason is that with that status, people cannot travel freely further on to the EU, but they need to apply for a visa,” RRE was told by the local activists. Increased security measures, and violence at the border but also on the streets, is accompanied with requests from the authorities for people on the move to apply for asylum. According to testimonies, if they refuse to do so, people can be sent to detention centres from where they can be deported or expelled to the country they entered from to Romania.
In the meantime, both groups working in Timișoara are increasing their activities on social media, trying to make the issues that people on the move in this country are faced with, more visible to the Romanian public. Flavius, a former journalist, explains how they focus on telling the stories about people they meet with, in order to promote “compassion, kindness, and solidarity”.
What is happening in Romania, especially at the borders, resembles to the growingly hostile atmosphere towards people on the move in Europe. The violence described by those who survived it, is done almost in the same way all over the EU borders – beatings, humiliation, destruction of property, and push-backs, have become normality for those who are seeking asylum in Europe. Increasingly hostile atmospheres and statements by the local authorities, accompanied and fueled action at the borders. The final result is polarisation of the public, and criminalisation of migration.
 Not his real name, to protect the person’s identity
 In 2020, 6,158 new asylum claims were registered while in 2019, 2,587 people applied. See https://asylumineurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/AIDA-RO_2020update.pdf
 https://asylumineurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/AIDA-RO_2020update.pdf. The duration of residence permits granted for refugee status is 3 years and for subsidiary protection 2 years.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.