By Dr Gill Gillespie, UK Director and Walton K Martin, US Director
A new article by Voxpublica in Romania interviewed refugees, and the Iranian Refugees Action Network expands on this from the experiences of their refugees in this article.
On 23 March 2012, refugees began a protest outside the Romanian Immigration Office hoping to highlight what they experience as inhumane conditions of detention in Romania. In his article for Voxpublica, Costi Rogozanu, in Romania, spoke to some of the refugees, who were distributing flyers asking for ‘Solidarity with Refugees’. They described some of the circumstances they experienced as follows:
Having fled from their home countries such as Iran, because of persecution, including imprisonment, torture and even rape, these traumatized refugees hope for a humane reception by the UNHCR and rapid ongoing settlement to a country of safety. Instead, they report being sent to detention centres, for example in Otopeni and Arad, and treated like criminals.
According to Voxpublica, refugees say that they are beaten by police in the detention centres on a regular basis, treated ‘worse than animals’ and even subject to tear gas attacks. A refugee detained in the Horia Centre in Arad stated that they are kept in cells which they are only allowed to leave for one or two hours a day. The detention centres do not allow them to go outside, have access to television, nor collect any money their families wish to send them for basic health care and food. Refugees even went on hunger strike to protest for their rights, but on 8 March 2012 were met with riot police wearing face masks and wielding tear gas in locked cells. After the police had rendered refugees completely helpless, they entered the cells and beat everyone. The refugee says in his statement that he sustained a broken hand and bleeding from his nose.
The Iranian Refugees Action Network condemns such action taken against vulnerable refugees who have already been subject to violence and persecution in their countries of origin. We consider that it is the duty of countries such as Romania to provide humanitarian assistance to all refugees including counselling, legal assistance, translation and support until their cases can be heard. What our refugees are reporting to us is that they are held in conditions much worse than those who have been convicted of serious crimes in European countries and the West. This is totally unacceptable and contradicts Romania’s signing in 2006 of the UN Convention to uphold human rights and ensure appropriate conditions for refugees (A/RES/60/251), when they joined the European Union.
Despite this, and the attendance of no less than six delegates at the recent international UNHCR Ministerial Meeting to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees in December 2011, it is noted that Romania was one of the very few countries which did not make any written pledges to improve situations or assistance for refugees http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4d22fd496.html In addition, in contradiction to the Convention adopted in 2006, it appears that Romanian detention centres are not providing access to facilities guaranteed by law, including “legal, medical and social needs and respect for their specificity of religion, philosophy and culture” (GEO 194/2002, article 99, paragraph 2).
Most people detained in these centres are asylum seekers whose applications for resettlement have been rejected, or their documents allowing them to stay in Romania having expired. Cases where people have committed crimes are very rare, almost nonexistent. However, those residents who are forced to be there are deprived of their liberty, have limited access to information and do not know their rights, nor are these explained to them. They are fingerprinted and photographed and the reasons for this also not explained.
There is another, very serious problem for asylum seekers held in Romanian detention centres. As Romanian is usually not their native language, they have limited ability to communicate with those who are detaining them, and certainly not to engage fully with the court system without the aid of translators. In the Iranian Refugees Action Network’s experience, refugees often turn up to court for their hearing, only to find no translators are available and their cases are delayed.
We know of one refugee whose case was even heard in his absence, no translator appointed and no communication forthcoming. On this basis, because he did not know a court hearing was proceeding, and was therefore not present, his case was turned down. This man had been repeatedly tortured by the Iranian regime and suffers physical and psychological scars. He cannot return to Iran as he would be arrested, imprisoned and probably tortured again. Yet the failings of the Romanian refugee system meant that he was thrown out of his detention centre and refused further help, leaving him homeless in sub-zero temperatures and during the worst snow-storm in a decade in Romania for weeks.
Two of our other refugees, who were persecuted for being Christians in Iran, were also subject to delays in court three times because translators were not present. Eventually, a family member flew to Romania from another European country to try to assist one of our refugees, who had been ejected from a detention centre into the same snow-storm with no food and money. When this family member protested about the situation, he was physically assaulted by Romanian police.
While detained, refugees’ psychological traumas can also be worsened by their conditions. They are subject to isolation, lack of communication, imprisonment and physical violence, as highlighted in the article by Voxpublica. Refugees have a right to be resident in detention centres for 18 months only, and the delays caused by lack of translators and the legal system can often take longer than this. Asylum seekers are therefore being forced to live in unacceptable conditions inside and outside the detention centres.
Romania is now part of the European Union, and has signed up to its conventions on humane treatment – and lack of torture – for vulnerable refugees. The Iranian Refugees Action Network is concerned that Romania is disregarding its legal responsibilities.
We argue, as does Voxpublica, that Romania needs to allow, as a matter of urgency, independent observers and journalists entry on a regular basis to their detention centres to monitor the living conditions of refugees, and provide recommendations for change.