A report on how refugees fleeing murder threats from ethnic conflict in the Middle East and Africa find relief in a revamped chicken farm in Timisoara, Romania
“All us Palestinians were told to leave Iraq. We lost our security – it was not a safe place,” says 18 year-old Reema. “In Baghdad, my uncle was assaulted by official security forces and illegal militias, who pulled out all his fingernails, while my father was shot three times. Here,” she points to the part of her body just below the chest. “Here,” she points to the stomach. “And here,” to the right of her heart.
Reema spent her entire teenage years living in a civil war and then trapped in a refugee camp in the desert – but for the last three months she has been housed in a former chicken farm in the west Romanian city of Timisoara.
Palestinians settled in Iraq after leaving Israel in 1948 and 1967, but were never granted citizenship under Saddam Hussein. Once the US and its allies invaded in 2003, new conflicts broke out and the community became a target as competing militias used their non-residential status as a pretext to drive them from their homes and steal their belongings. They were victims of forces loyal to the old regime, the new regime and the alternative regimes which suddenly emerged in Baghdad.
“The Iraqis took everything that we had – our houses and our cars – and said because we were not Iraqi, we could not have them,” says 19 year-old Yafa. Shaking her head, Reema adds: “No one had any control over the situation. It was worse than before the war.”
Khalid, 47, fled from Baghdad with his five daughters and one boy. “My uncle and cousin were killed in Baghdad,” he says. “They were shot in their homes and dragged out into the street.”
His family and pregnant wife escaped to the Al Waleed refugee camp in the desert on the Syrian border, plagued by sandstorms and intolerable heat. “When the night fell, snakes and scorpions came into our tent,” Khalid says.
His wife gave birth to a daughter in the camp, before the family was airlifted from Iraq to the United Nations’ new Evacuation Transit Centre in Timisoara, where they now await resettlement in America. “I will go to the US and never go back to Iraq,” he adds.
The Romanian camp is a decompression zone for refugees fleeing persecution, before they recreate their lives as American, Canadian, UK or Swedish citizens. These asylum seekers have been living in overcrowded camps in dangerous locations and need a safe place to stay for up to six months while their claims are processed. Therefore they end up in Timisoara, surrounded by barbed wire, between suburban houses, a low-level industrial zone and German hypermarket Real.
This pioneering scheme, opened in May 2008, is part of an agreement between the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Romanian Government and International Organisation for Migration (IOM). It takes the Government a week to process the refugees to allow them entry, while the IOM plans flights to Timisoara from locations such as the Syrian border or Puntland in the Horn of Africa, which are not regular routes to the Banat capital.
Romania’s UNHCR representative Machiel Salomons calls the centre “a model for international cooperation in bringing refugees to safety.” But this is no holiday camp. The housing is clean, but crowded. There are ten beds to a room and men and women are segregated. Everyone eats communally and the impression is more transit dormitory than refugee camp. Outside is a weed-strewn field with a pair of rusting basketball hoops. But there is a new playground with see-saws for the kids – 67 of whom live at the centre, two boys of which were born there in September.
The refugees can’t drink on-site and two stand outside smoking, in the November cold, one in a sweatshirt in Juventus away-kit colours, another in a faded FC Barcelona cap.
Meanwhile, at 11:30 am every day, a coach takes them to the local mosque for prayers.
“Here the problem is that we cannot go out and my father cannot work, nor can the children go to school,” says Reema, “but the family is all together and we feel safe.”
They do not leave the centre unless accompanied – usually to a shopping centre, where groups of them wander around the bright-branded aisles of the nearby Iulius Mall.
In the breakaway republic of Somaliland, Ethiopians became victims of witch hunts by local paramilitaries, who could earn cash for every Ethiopian turned in to the local authorities. Some were put on public trial, convicted and then hung by the neck – a judgement which was televised and broadcast nationally. Now the refugees are sitting around the Timisoara centre’s IT room, tapping away on second-hand PCs and watching east African music videos on file-sharing site You Tube.
One 45 year-old Ethiopian, Mohammed, is looking at a photo of the skyscrapers of a Canadian city fronting the Great Lakes, waiting to click on Skype to speak to his wife and ten children, who live there. “I have another ten children and another wife in Ethiopia,” he says, “but I cannot wait to move to Canada.” The city panorama acts as his desktop.
The cost of the centre is one million Euro per year – for which the USA pays half. The rest of the money comes from the EU and the UNHCR, while Romania provides the location and security. Charity group Save the Children helps with schooling and Romania’s International Women’s Association will give a fund-raising dinner in the Bucharest Hilton next April.
But the camp needs cash. The UNHCR wants to build more family units for the kids, while the basketball and tennis courts need a revamp. Refugees acclimatising from the desert to the tough Romanian winter wrap up in warm clothing, donated by Swedish high street darlings H&M who, ironically, do not have a store open in Romania. Much to the annoyance of young Romanian fashionistas, it seems the only place one can get H&M lines in Romania, is if one is fleeing political persecution.
Outside the centre, newly-washed clothes are hanging on the fence of the basketball court. In front is a football field, where I meet Mohammed, a middle-aged Palestinian speaking good English, who has a sprightly four-year old boy. He used to work in Baghdad as a driver for a German company, until Iraqis sequestered his car. He sees I am a journalist and asks me to take his picture.
“I want someone to be there when I get on the plane to the USA,” he says. “A TV camera or a photographer, to catch that moment when I walk up those steps. Can you do that?”
I say it is pretty impossible for me to be pointing a lens at him at that precise moment. He looks disappointed and pleads again, but I cannot give him any assurance.
He is going to live in Texas with his wife and kid. “Will you come and visit?” he asks. “I will make you coffee.”
I say I will try – and tell him that when he reaches Texas, he should say hello to his new neighbour, George W Bush.
“No, no, not George Bush, no,” he shakes his head and then launches a fist in the air. “Obama,” he nods. “Obama now.”
The refugees names have been changed.
Wars drop, refugees rise
Resettlement needs for refugees fleeing persecution are increasing, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
■ Next year 200,000 refugees will be in need of resettlement. This is a rise of four times on 2000 – despite fewer wars. So why are there more settlement needs when the fighting is less intense?
“These refugees are part of a protracted situation,” says Machiel Solomons, UNHCR representative. “Neighbouring countries to which they first fled do not want to give them nationality.”
■ In some countries, he sees tolerance to refugees subsiding, especially as the economic crisis ripples across the developing world. There are also political reasons that refugees do not gain citizenship in the country of their asylum.
The Palestinians have not received nationality in certain Middle Eastern states because, some analysts argue, if they no longer have a ‘displaced person’ status, this could dilute the strength of their claim to a homeland in Israel’s occupied territories.
■ Last year the bulk of the world’s refugees, 50,000, were taken in by the USA, with Canada and Australia in second and third place. “These are traditional immigration countries,” says Solomons.
“They understand the usefulness of refugees, who can be productive citizens, tend to be grateful and return the favour with loyalty.”
■ But only around 5.7 per cent of resettled refugees go to the EU – a number which could do with a boost. Romania last year resettled around 100, the majority from Iraq. Next year Romania is taking on 40 Burmese, who will be evacuated from Malaysia to the eastern city of Galati.
■ In the EU, there is still no harmonised policy on accepting refugees, although this year the Swedish EU presidency has launched a debate on a Common EU Resettlement Scheme. Currently the chances of asylum for refugees depends on their entry point to the EU. A Chechen, for example, may use the same story for gaining through Poland with a five per cent chance of approval, while in Slovakia this may be 85 per cent. This inconsistency is ideal for traffickers. They can detect the softest entry points to push through an illegal immigrant. Meanwhile, for genuine asylum seekers who cannot choose the place where they flee to, the chance of acceptance is a lottery.
Published in ‘The Diplomat – Bucharest’ http://www.thediplomat.ro (December 2009)