With Romania set to become the longest border of the European Union, authorities expect a rise in illegal immigrants. Ana-Maria Smadeanu looks at a local solution, imported from Belgium
Just a few kilometres north of
Bucharest, on the main road to the
mountains, there lies an anonymous
renovated building. Entering the yard,
the gate locks behind. One can then see
sports grounds and two inter-connected
buildings which play host to a large lobby
with modern furnishings and comfy
sofas. Its basement holds a billiard room,
fitness hall, surgery, prayer room and library.
Everything is clean, the people are polite and the food is good. The residents seem happy and healthy, can receive their family and chat away in different languages on their mobile phones. The rooms have around four bunk-beds, TV and bathroom with shower.
But this is not a youth hostel or army barracks.
Doors to the rooms are locked from the outside. From the windows, one can only see the sky through iron bars. Each floor has several guards and 48 CCTV cameras patrol the corridors and stairs.
At eight o’clock in the evening, the residents are shut in their rooms until morning.
This is the Otopeni Detention and Accommodation Centre for Foreigners [Centrul de Detentie pentru Straini aflati in Custodia Statului], where foreigners, illegally working or residing in Romania, stay until they are deported back to their home country.
With Romania ready to become the longest border of the European Union, a rush of illegal migrants and asylumseekers are expected to head for the country from poverty-stricken areas of the former Soviet bloc, war-torn Middle East and even South America or Africa.
Therefore the country needs a blueprint to deal with this situation, and this detention centre, modelled on a Belgian facility, could be a solution.
Many of these illegal residents, due for deportation, are delayed due to red tape on applications for political asylum. Around 30 to 40 people per month live in the centre, most from Russia, Bulgaria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran. At present they are all men.
Take Noori Abid Dakar, a 51 yearold Iraqi, who came to the centre in November 2005. He fled his home country in 1995 after being shot by the authorities in his leg and face, he claims.
“I bought a Yemeni passport in Turkey in 1995 under the name Abdul Razzag,” says Dakar. He landed in Bucharest, but after the date on his fake passport expired, he was afraid to introduce himself to the local authorities. In Bucharest, he married a Romanian woman and now
has a nine-year old child. During this time, he sold coffee and cigarettes in a mini-market in Rahova, Bucharest. The authorities rejected his first political asylum demand, made on the Yemeni name.
In December 2005 he applied again for asylum at the Otopeni centre. “Please help me to come back to my Romanian child and wife in Bucharest,” he says. Most residents want to stay in Romania, have picked up the language and are applying for political asylum.
But Sergio Hidalgo, a 44-year old Bolivian musician, who came to Romania in 2001 and entered the centre four months ago, just does not have the correct travel papers.
Meanwhile 49 year-old Iranian Farahad Shams arrived in 2002 with
a tourist visa but fell in love with a Romanian woman. He says he has “problems” with the Iranian Government and preferred to flee. In Bucharest, he picked up the entrepreneurial spirit and now runs three shoe stores.
For love, he says, he renounced the Muslim religion and became an Orthodox Christian. But the Romanian state has rejected his demand for political asylum.
Built in 1999 to accommodate 80 people,
the centre was renovated in 2004
with a 1.4 million Euro EU Phare grant,
and has space for 140, as well as an ambulance,
up-to-date medical equipment,
four nurses and one doctor on call.
“Romania was, in the past, a transit country,” says Alexandru Grigoroiu, director of the centre. “Foreigners didn’t come here to stay, they were just passing. But now some of them ask for political asylum.”
Grigoroiu says their number will rise once Romania joins the EU.
Categories of foreigners illegally on Romanian territory include those who commit offences such as trafficking in drugs, robbery or smuggling. After their sentence in a Romanian jail, they stay in the centre while the authorities prepare their expulsion. Many of them work in the Europa shopping complex, in eastern Bucharest. Their nationalities include Chinese, Turkish, Indian and Iranian.
“Generally only the very small merchants come to the centre,” says Grigoroiu. “Some of these citizens have university degrees and I don’t understand why they let themselves get to the point when their freedom is restricted. In their country some of them say they have a good financial situation.”
He says most of the residents at the centre have committed offences in their own country and are refugees from justice.
“They come to Romania, telling us that their life is threatened or that they are oppressed,” Grigoroiu adds. A second category is those whose residence in Romania is unresolved or whose visa has expired.
Incidents have been low. Around two years ago civil disobedience was higher and one Iranian citizen cut his hands and his belly open. Now an in-house psychologist should limit this kind of self-harm.
Some residents have psychological and cardiac problems, rheumatism, posttraumatic stress disorder and insomnia.
There has been one case of AIDS and one of Tuberculosis. One person tried to escape, but he was caught before he managed to flee the grounds. Foreigners’ roommates belong to the same religion and those coming from jail never share the same room with those who have not experienced incarceration, says the director.
Residents can stay for up to six months. Following this, if they still cannot leave to their home country, they are sent back into Romanian society, where they become a ‘tolerant’. While the Romanian state ‘tolerates’ their presence, they must continue to make efforts to get back home and inform the local authorities of their whereabouts. This is a form of probation.
If the foreigner still hangs around Bucharest, he returns to the centre. This can become cyclic.
Until 2003, two Iranian citizens stayed in and out of the centre for five years.
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