On the 8th and 9th of December 2016, I had the privilege of being one of representatives from 26 European countries that gathered in Stockholm to share lessons learned about safeguards and services for migrant and asylum seeking children, adolescents and young people, especially those who are unaccompanied. The participants represented national governments, UN Agencies, international and local organisations as well as children and young people. They discussed good practices and challenges in a complex reality where many European countries are both countries of origin, transit and/or destination.
The situation of children during the migration process is an important concern for the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) and the Central European Initiative (CEI) and the conclusions from the meeting will guide the work of the two regional organisations and their partners in 2017 and beyond. A detailed report was developed summarising the presentations and discussions.
At the meeting, the CBSS Guidelines Promoting the Human Rights and the Best Interests of the Child in Transnational Child Protection Cases were officially launched.
My speech within the framework of the panel Protecting unaccompanied children abroad: The perspectives of countries of origin on transnational cooperation in child protection cases was aimed at presenting to an international audience the current situation in Romania. See below:
Romania used to have a very low proportion of non-nationals living within the country. In 1990, 0.6% of the population were immigrants and by 2013, the rate was only slightly higher (0.9%). Most of the non-nationals at the time were citizens of Moldova and many of them of Romanian descent, so there are barely any cultural differences. Romania has traditionally received also very few asylum applications. Between 1991 and 2014, the total number of applications registered amounted to 26,606. In 2015, however, 1,266 asylum applications were received and the number has risen further during 2016.
Due to its history, Romania has strong ties with the Syrian people and there is a large Syrian diaspora of persons who have been living in Romania for many years and who are well integrated. With the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria, many Syrians came to Romania in order to live with their family members and relatives from Syria. They arrived however, as migrants with valid visas, which was possible since Romania had maintained its diplomatic ties with Syria. These persons did therefore do not figure in asylum statistics.
Romania has seen a noteworthy trend in the political discourse and public debate. Although three quarters of the population were against receiving asylum seekers and refugees in Romania in December 2015, no extremist party has entered the Romanian Parliament in this year’s elections. When the asylum seekers arrived, large parts of the population changed their attitudes. The political discourse had from the very beginning a strong condemnation of any form of xenophobia and hate speeches. The fact that we accepted refugees was discussed as an important opportunity and a positive development for the country and the people. Nonetheless, we observe a lot of hate speech and false information distributed through social media.
In response to the unusually high numbers of asylum seekers, the cooperation between the state authorities at the central and local level, NGOS and the civil society became stronger and closer and developed into a fruitful partnership that had previously not existed in this form. The representatives of different state and non-state actors started to gather regularly and included representatives of the main national minority groups and refugees. In the second half of 2015, the National Council for the Integration of Refugees was established. The main priorities for the Council are to facilitate the learning of the Romanian language as language skills are key to effective integration of migrants and asylum seekers. In addition, the Council is tasked to find solutions for the registration and documentation of asylum seekers as many did not have any identity documents but require papers in order to enter the labour market in Romania.
During 2015 and 2016, only 542 refugees have been relocated to Romania. During 2015, 55 unaccompanied children were relocated to Romania, most of them were boys and their countries of origin are Afghanistan, Syria and Bangladesh. We see the main challenges not so much with ensuring accommodation but rather in ensuring their access to medical services, temporary identity papers and effective integration. There is a general lack of language trainers and interpreters and cultural integration programmes. The children also need legal representation for the asylum procedure. The public budget allocated to each refugee or migrant amounts only to approximately 150 Euro, which is a small amount and explains why many want to move on.
For many years, Romania has been primarily a country of origin and has faced many challenges with children left behind by their migrating parents. In 2012, there were 79,901 children left behind and 22,993 of them had both their parents abroad. We had cases of adolescents aged 15 or 16 years old who took care of their younger siblings and received money from their parents abroad but had not state support. In light of this situation, Romania has modified its legislation to the effect that parents who migrate abroad and leave their children behind have to notify the local council of their departure. The law provides for special protection measures for the children left behind as well as for children returning from abroad.
During the financial and economic crisis of 2009-2010, we observed a reversed movement as many families returned to Romania. Many of the children had serious problems in reintegrating into the school system. Many of the children had not been asked about their opinion concerning the migration of their parents or the family’s return to Romania. There were difficulties in the family communication and the children were having psychological problems.
In response to these developments, we noted that it is important to develop the grass root networks of social workers and to mobilise the support of local communities. Many problems have been solved through the initiative of school teachers who provided leisure time and recreational activities and school clubs for children who have been left behind together with other children so they could socialise.
Solving the challenges and problems facing the children who are coming to Romania as migrants or refugees, as well as Romanian children returning from abroad or left behind by their migrating parents, is about our future. We need to have a grass roots approach where we support local communities and authorities in promoting social and cultural integration as the key to success. In addition, there is a need for a strong and strategic communication campaign, based on facts and evidence, and an intensified public and political advocacy process.
The page of the event is available online here.