Gabriela Leu is public information/communications associate at the Romanian Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people and it was created in 1950, during the aftermath of World War II. 

We often see in mass media how „refugees” and „migrants” are conflated. What are the main differences between the two terms and how we could define them? What is a refugee, a migrant, what is relocation and resettlement?

Foto: ©UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Refugee or migrant? Word choice matters. In our everyday life, we often find these two terms refugee and migrant being used interchangeably. In fact, they have distinct and different meaning and confusing them, leads to problems for both populations and I’ll explain why.

Refugees are people fleeing conflict and persecution. Their situation is often so dangerous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, being internationally recognized as „refugees”, entitled to assistance from other countries, UNHCR and other organizations. In their case, denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines who is a refugee and what basic right states should afford to refugees. Protection of refugees includes not only safety from being returned to the dangers they fled but also the possibility to apply for asylum, access to a fair and efficient asylum process and the chance to live their life in dignity and safety.

Migrants are people who chose to move mainly to improve their lives by finding work or, in some cases for family, education or other reasons. But not because of a direct threat or persecution. Unlike refugees, migrants can safely return home and continue to be protected by their government.

Governments deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and with refugees through international norms of refugee protection. The human rights of migrants need to be respected and they need to be treated with respect and dignity. A correct distinction between refugees and migrants will ensure that refugees receive an appropriate legal response and legal protection. This is even more relevant in the context of many migration flows where refugees and migrants are traveling together, sharing the same routes although not the same reasons for fleeing.

Relocation versus resettlement

At first, refugees need safety, after that, they need more durable, long terms solutions. These could be integrated into the host community or voluntary return home if the conditions allow. However, there are situations when refugees are no longer safe in their first country of asylum and can neither integrate nor repatriate. For them, resettlement to a third country of asylum may apply. To make resettlement available, UNHCR relies on the places voluntarily offered by countries. In 2017, out of the estimated 1,19 mil. places needed, only six percent were available.

“All that I need is peace”, Faduma, 81 years, Somalia

Foto: Faduma, 81, at the Emergency Transit Centre Timisoara, 2018. Foto ©UNHCR/Ioana Epure

To give an example, many Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis sought asylum in Syria, in the past. When the conflict in Syria started, these refugees were no longer safe and many fled again. Few of the most vulnerable refugees, such as Faduma Nour Zein, 81  and her husband, were resettled by UNHCR. We met them recently, at the Emergency Transit Center in Timișoara, while waiting for the resettlement procedures to complete. The couple lived through 17 years of war in Somalia and soon after moving to Syria, they were caught in war, again. Resettled in the UK, all that Faduma needs is peace.

Relocation is solidarity and responsibility sharing. We speak about relocation especially in the context of the EU emergency mechanism put in place after the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, when over 1 mil. people migrants and refugees arrived in Europe. Relocation means that asylum-seekers (people who applied for asylum and wait for an answer) or people who are in clear need of international protection are transferred from one EU country to another, for their application to be examined. Only nationalities with an average recognition rate of 75 percent or more were eligible for relocation which means that mainly Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis qualified. At the end of 2017, some 29.000 asylum-seekers had been relocated from Greece and Italy.

Romania was among the few states who received relocated refugees, over 700 people. This was a gesture of normality and solidarity that must be praised. After all, the relocated were given the chance to start rebuilding their lives.

One of them is Karem, 20 yr old from Yemen. Fleeing conflict and forced recruitment, Karem survived a long and dangerous trip, by himself. In 2016 he arrived in Galați, Romania where we met. With a smile on his face, he described the sea journey from Turkey to Greece, on high seas, surrounded by frightened people screaming and begging to get back to the shore. He then slept for days in the open, without food or hope, before applying for relocation and leaving Greece. “I smile because I survived.  Eight times I thought I would die. One day, I’ll write a book and its title is The Death Journey“.

Foto: Karem, 20, Yemen. ©UNHCR/Ioan Preda

What are the most predominant age groups among the refugee influx and which ones are the most vulnerable?

Over half of the world refugees are children, compared to 31 percent of the world children. If we look at the Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries, over 40 percent are children. In Romania, one-third of the asylum requests submitted in 2017 were from children.

Since displacement can affect everyone, many people find themselves in extremely vulnerable situations. Children may flee alone and live separated from their families. They may have witnessed or experience violent acts and, in exile, are at risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation or trafficking. Therefore, everywhere in the world UNHCR is with the authorities and other partners to make sure these children receive care, psychosocial support, education and access to family reunification services.

Women and girls make up around 50 percent of the refugee population and those who are unaccompanied, heads of households, disabled and elderly are particularly vulnerable. Traditional roles are often disrupted in exile and women may need to take up new responsibilities. Programmes that help women improve their leadership skills, access education and work opportunities help not only the women but their families, as well.

In many places, elderly refugees find themselves in very dire situations, such as Fadumo, the Somali refugee in Syria, forced to flee again in her 80, accompanied by her disabled husband – the heart-breaking story I mentioned before.

What is the impact of refugees on the EU member states? What are the criteria refugees use to choose a destination country?

There is a lot of debate about the economic impact of refugees on the host countries. At first, the refugees need a house, food on the table, medical needs addressed, children educated and adults prepared in order to enter the labor market. At this stage, good refugee integration policies are vital. This is a critical time where good investment in refugees’ integration will yield positive results. On the longer term, refugees could help slow the rate of an aging Europe, burdened by the growing number of retirees. The International Monetary Fund – IMF estimated that the recent refugee influx could reduce pension spending by 0.25 percentage points of GDP by 2030 for EU as a whole, and by more for large EU host countries.

Also, refugees bring with them skills and talents. They learn new trades, get jobs, open small businesses and pay taxes. They bring cultural diversity and enrich their communities.

Foto: Syrian refugee, Chef M. Elkhaldy and French Chef S. Jego, open the Refugee Food Festival at the Paris restaurant L’Ami. France, 2017. ©UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Whatever the positive impact refugees have on the economy, most people are more concerned about how refugees are going to affect their daily lives and whether they will have to compete for jobs. Research has shown that domestic workers with the same skills of refugees might be affected but other types of workers and the businesses gain. Well-functioning labor markets and good public policies help refugees integrate into the economy and society and positive effect overrun the negative ones.

Refugee protection does include choosing of the country of asylum. In the EU, Dublin Regulation establishes which country is responsible to examine the asylum request and offer protection. In principle, this would be the first safe country a refugee gets to. There are also exceptions such as family reunification and emergency relocation- like the ones from Greece and Italy.

In the absence of legal ways to flee their country, refugees have no other choice than turning to smugglers, without having much control over the destination. Most of them, understandably hope to settle in a country where they have family or friends expected to help them settle. Romania is seen as a transit country also because refugees don’t know much about Romania as a destination place. However, many of those who stayed, despite the hardship of a new beginning, came to appreciate life here.

When we think of the refugee crisis, we mostly think of Syrian one. Is Syria the only country producing refugees?

One person forced to flee every three seconds

The Syrian conflict forced over 5.6 million people to become refugees and affected the lives of other millions trapped inside the country. Nowadays, most of the refugees are from Syria.  At the end of 2016, half of the 22.5 million world refugees came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. In the meantime, new conflicts such the one in Myanmar forcing 700,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh, continue to raise the number of refugees in the world.

In 2016, every three seconds one person was forced to flee which means 65 million people forcibly displaced globally-almost two thirds inside their own countries. Out of those that have fled as refugees, 86% remain in developing countries in their own regions. Many people around us live under the impression that most refugees are coming to Europe: one million people arriving in one year (2015) represented in fact just 0.2 percent of the EU population. Turkey is the biggest host with over 3.5 million refugees (mostly Syrians), followed by Pakistan with 1.4 million refugees, mostly Afghans. Lebanon, a country of 4 million population and home to 1 million refugees, third on the list of refugee-hosting countries.

Both at international and national level there was some reluctance regarding the refugee quotas. What contributed to this reluctance from the side of citizens and governments, towards receiving and integrating refugees?

The refugee quotas were part of the debate on solutions to the refugee crisis and revealed the uneven position of the countries towards responsibility and solidarity sharing. Some countries distanced themselves from the values of the international protection regime and the principles laying at the EU foundation.

What is behind the reluctance to receive refugees? Could be lack of proper information: we still hear the expression “economic refugee”, something that does not exist. Could be political will, translated into deterrent policies, closed borders, fences, asylum detention. All these were meant to keep refugees away while demonizing them for seeking safety.

The impression that governments are not in control during the Europe crisis – as it indeed appeared to many when the failure to implement a collective, managed response led to scenes of chaos at borders. This led to a breakdown in trust and plays into the hands of those who challenge the governments’ legitimacy and seek to turn refugees into scapegoats. It is therefore important that European governments show, through collective action, that they are just capable of responding effectively to refugee movements. In December 2016, UNHCR submitted to the EU a set of proposals aimed at rebuilding trust through better management of refugee movements, partnership and solidarity.

Many people have genuine concerns about the impact of refugee arrivals on key aspects of their lives: safety, security, economic prosperity -in particular access to jobs- and their own identity and values. Perceptions vary significantly, but negativity prevails. It is important that we work together to engage with these concerns. Fair and efficient asylum systems, well-managed borders taking into account refugee rights, evidence base discourse to counter those narratives as well as an educated public help addressing the public concerns. Research carried out among recently arrived refugees in Germany demonstrated that they share the same values of democracy, freedom, and commitment to gender equality as German citizens. The OECD points out that the medium and long-term effects of migration on public finance, economic growth and labor market are generally positive. Analysis of the impact of last year’s refugee arrivals in Sweden showed that they provided a boost to the job market through increased public spending.

It is important to demonstrate that the measures taken to provide protection to refugees are also designed to address the concerns of the public and that the social contract between refugees and the host countries, which incorporates both rights and obligations, is properly established. Like anyone else, refugees must comply with the laws of their host countries and respect their values.

What are the steps Romania made from the acceptance of the first refugee to present time?

Romania has a long tradition of receiving refugees, on 7 April marking 137 years from its first “Law on Foreigners“. But the current asylum system, legislation and institutions were built and consolidated within the past 25 years with significant contribution from UNHCR.

The General Inspectorate for Immigration (within the Ministry of Interior) manages asylum and integration issues in Romania, based on several specific laws on asylum and integration. According to the law, Romania provides accommodation to asylum-seekers without financial means to live on their own in one of the six reception centers around the country. They also receive medical assistance and a monthly allowance for food and other expenses. Upon receiving protection, refugees may apply for enrolment in the national integration programme. Several integration centers run by NGO partners of GII are open in several cities, helping refugees in their efforts.

Let’s think of a refugee family with children, arriving in a new country. They need to learn the language therefore, the integration centers offer language classes. The cultural orientation would help them understand the culture of a new country and how to navigate through an institutional and legislative maze. The counselors accompany refugees to different authorities, help them fill in the forms and explain the steps. A good start requires a home outside the refugee center, a job, health insurance, education for kids. Therefore, the social counselors will help refugees find an apartment, enroll with the family doctor, enroll the children in school or kindergarten, advise adults on getting a job. This first year is not an easy one and it goes by very fast. Refugees receive financial help during the first year, provided they take an active part in the integration programme.  At the end of the year, they are expected to sustain themselves.

The ultimate goal of the integration support is that refugees thrive, not only survive. The help they receive at the beginning is an investment: refugees have skills and talents they bring to our society. Once they settle in they are able to contribute in many ways and enrich the community that embraced them.

Do refugees in Romania have access to jobs, education and what are the challenges they face? Have you encountered hate speech or racism? 

Refugees have the right to work and study similarly to Romanian citizens. But in some cases, it may be difficult to access these rights. Speaking Romanian is a must for many jobs. Refugees also need to prove their qualifications and education status with documents they don’t have on them. Many people flee their homes without any papers or lose them during the journey. Finding a job is not that difficult, finding the right job might be a problem.

School enrolment for children is also granted by the law. Children can participate as audients, as soon as they arrive here. Later on, based on the evaluation of their school level they will be transferred to the right school class. Sometimes school or preschool principals refuse enrolment of refugee children invoking various reasons. On the other side, we’ve met extraordinary teachers in Șomcuta Mare (Maramureș), in Giurgiu, in Bucharest – who turned the reality of working with refugee children into a very positive, multicultural and learning experience. UNHCR works with several schools that asked for help in teaching about refugees. We are just now, preparing refugee education workshops for students at the I. H. Rădulescu School in Bucharest and the George Călinescu College in Constanța. Teaching about refugees is an important part of our work; therefore, teachers can find rich UNHCR educational resources to guide them.

Successful integration requires good legislation and practices, involvement from authorities, civil society and refugees themselves. On top of these, the public perception of refugees plays a significant role. Following the 2015 crisis, the huge public sympathy at the onset of the crisis subsided rapidly to make room for anti-refugee rhetoric. This happened all over Europe and in Romania as well. We noticed the deterioration of public attitude but now, the public narrative on refugees is rather neutral, with positive and negative accents, depending on the media. The xenophobic, racist discourse proliferated especially on social media. The danger in this approach does not need to be spelled out; for the first time in a very long time, few refugees were assaulted during the past years.

Foto: A child visiting the UNHCR stand at the Embassies festival, writes a letter to a refugee. ©UNHCR/Gabriela Leu

Most of Romanians have never met a refugee and their knowledge and experience are built from what they read, hear and see in the media. From our experience, the most powerful advocates for refugees are people who have been directly exposed to them and have shared, even momentarily, the reality of their experiences. This is a powerful force to be nurtured, which has the potential to shape public opinion and to form a bridge between refugees and communities. And this is why we encourage people to get involved, volunteer to help and to meet refugees.

The way refugees integrate into the society is very important, especially in times of political instability. What measures you think are relevant and what elements would ease refugees‘ integration, especially in Romania? 

Since 1991 when we came to Romania, we worked with the government and other partners to build and consolidate the national asylum system – legislation and institutions. Initially, the asylum and integration services were centralized and available only in Bucharest. Nowadays the system is decentralized which means there are many sets of local interlocutors playing a role, all over the country.

From experience, we know that integration works best at a local level so we support the local authorities such as school inspectorates, employment offices, social actors, health authorities, courts, municipalities. We do this in partnership with civil society actors and the aim is to build welcoming communities. We promote good practices that may serve as an example to other communities.

We promote talented refugees and we share the experience of those standing by them. We give a voice to refugees through stories, so the public gets familiarised with the refugees and hopefully, builds a favorable opinion about them. Last but not least through media work and partnerships, we bring refugee issue closer to the public, for better understanding and acceptance.

In 2016, the UN refugee Agency launched the #WithRefugees campaign and its Petition. What were the results? How important are these campaigns in influencing public attitudes and acceptance?

We initiated the #WithRefugees global campaign to show that people all over the world are standing with refugees. To bring refugees closer to a public that is not necessarily familiarised with the refugees’ plight or wishes to support refugees without knowing the best way to do it.

The campaign encouraged people to stand by refugees and so far, almost 1.9 million people signed the Petition. Whoever agrees that each refugee child deserves education, each family deserves a safe place to live and each refugee has the right to work, can sign the petition to show support.

Public solidarity is important and strengthens the UNHCR call for a better management of massive refugee influxes. As a result, the historic New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants approved by all 193 UN states agreed that protecting those who are forced to flee and supporting the countries that shelter them are shared international responsibilities that must be borne more equitably and predictably.

Building upon this, in September 2018, in consultation with governments and other partners, UNHCR will propose to the UN countries a Global Compact on Refugees, blueprint on how to best respond to large movement of refugees. Therefore, our campaign will continue until the end of the year.

In Romania, more and more partners are joining, speaking on behalf of refugees under the #WithRefugees campaign. Every gesture counts, every refugee story read and shared with friends helps since there is a need for more people around us to learn about refugees and get to know them better.

We are often impressed by the way people show care and solidarity for refugees. During the crisis in 2015, people offered their homes, volunteered to help in any way they could, companies offered jobs and in-kind support. In some cases, learning about refugees was a true eye-opener making people realize refugees that are normal people face with extraordinary circumstances.

Foto: art performance by refugee and non-refugee children at TRAF, Bucharest, 2017. ©UNHCR/Simona Constantin

Out of the many wonderful initiatives that stand with refugees, I would like to mention a few.

Last year, an excellent initiative was born: the Timișoara Refugee Art Festival (TRAF) organized by AidRom in cooperation with SolidArt and the Timișoara Intercultural Institute. The first art festival with and for refugees brought together refugee and non-refugee teenagers all sharing passion for art. The Festival was so successful that we invited the artists to Bucharest, for the 2017 June Refugee Day celebration. We already know that the second edition of the Timișoara Refugee Art Festival is underway, will take place in Timisoara and Bucharest, we support it and hope will become a tradition.

LADO Cluj – League for Human Rights Defence, established a tradition of inviting refugees and migrants from different communities to celebrate diversity during the annual Cluj Multiculturality Festival.

For the Embassies Festival organized last September in Bucharest by ESCU Association, we joined forces with our partners from CNRR (National Council for Refugees and JRS – Jesuit Refugee Service and stand together for refugees. ESCU stands for Education, Society, Culture and Humanity so we invited two very talented musicians, Mohamad Zatari from Syria and Mehdi Aminian to perform. They presented on the stage of the Festival compositions from their album Quieter than Silence, a mix of Syrian and Persian traditional motifs speaking about the plight of the Syrian refugees. Soon we will start the preparation of this year’s edition, the World Experience Festival where we’ll continue to bring refugee culture and talents closer to the public.

In March this year, we supported the One World Romania Human Rights Documentary Festival which in included several refugee documentaries under its “Looking for a country” section. We adopted the “Stranger in paradise “documentary and talked to the public during the after film debate.

Foto: Madrigal visiting conductor Emanuel Pecingină and Simona Spirescu, school teacher rehearse new song with Romanian and refugee children within the Cantus Mundi programme, 2018. ©UNHCR/Ioana Epure

I would like to mention a recent partner, the National Chamber Choir Madrigal whose wonderful people invited refugee children to join Romanians in the Cantus Mundi children’s choir.  Last week, we accompanied Sam, a 9-year-old Syrian refugee and his younger sister to the rehearsal at the Ferdinand 1st School Bucharest and saw with our own eyes what a warm welcome looks like.

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

In the end, let me mention the Somali-British writer, Warsan Shire, who explored stories of escapes and journeys. In her poem named “Home“, she wrote:

“No one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles traveled
means something more than journey.

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
I don’t know what I’ve become
but I know that anywhere
is safer than here.”


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