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Czech Republic is the Pioneer Of Resettlement to Central Europe
Friday 13, February 2009
PRAGUE/BUDAPEST 13 February 2009 - "I am happy that my baby has the chance to start a new life in this safe and friendly place", said Angel*, a young refugee woman, upon her arrival at Prague airport on Thursday.
Angel is one of 14 Myanmar refugees who have been transferred to the Czech Republic under the country's pilot programme on Resettlement. In Prague the groups will be reunited with 23 fellow refugees who have already been transferred last October.
"There are eight countries in Europe which run full resettlement programmes. The first new EU Member State that has already started a pilot programme on resettlement is the Czech Republic," says UNHCR's Regional Representative for Central Europe, Gottfried Köfner. "We are promoting resettlement in these countries because it is an efficient way to provide protection to refugees and integrate them in new societies.
Over the past years, the annual number of asylum seekers in Europe has practically halved, from an average of 400.000 new arrivals in 2002 (in today's 27 EU Member States) to an average of 200.000 in the past three years.
In an attempt to prevent illegal migration, the EU has tightened its control of land and sea borders and pre-departure checks of air passengers so much that it has become very difficult for refugees as well, to gain access to the EU directly. "Europe is where the concept of asylum originated two thousand years ago," says Köfner. "Now that fewer and fewer refugees manage to arrive spontaneously, we need to introduce additional ways. Otherwise Europe is going to forfeit one of her finest humanitarian traditions, that of being a safe haven for the persecuted."
UNHCR is proactively
In UNHCR's view, resettlement serves several purposes. It is a durable solution for those who are in need of international protection and a mechanism for international burden- and responsibility sharing. Traditional resettlement States are the United States, Canada, Australia and the Scandinavian countries.
In 2007 nearly 80,000 refugees were resettled worldwide, out of those less than 4,000 in Europe. Therefore, UNHCR has started to promote this concept proactively within all EU countries.
For the refugees from Myanmar, there was no other way out of Malaysian refugee camps than resettlement. "We are so happy that our ordeal is over after ten years," says Soloman*, a middle-aged man who came with his wife and tow sons. He is wrapped in a winter coat and, for the first time in his life, is bracing himself for temperatures below zero.
Among the new EU Member States, only the Czech Republic has embarked on a pilot resettlement scheme so far. In other Central European countries, UNHCR has started advocating for resettlement a year ago, organising conferences and facilitating twinning projects with experienced resettlement countries.
"Resettlement is a complex endeavour," says UNHCR resettlement expert Areti Sianni. "It encompasses legal, social, logistical, medical and psychosocial aspects. Starting from a screening process prior to the refugees' departure, and complex travel arrangements including the provision of travel documents, it is leading up to structured reception and integration programmes upon arrival."
The latter part is maybe the most demanding for the new EU Member States and one of the reasons why most of them still shy away from commitments, but there is progress.
Central Europe to follow
Czech example soon
In Romania, an Evacuation Transit Centre has been established in Timisoara where refugees evacuated from dangerous situations can be accommodated for up to six months. During that period, UNHCR is seeking durable resettlement solutions for them. However, Romania is also interested to accept resettled refugees to its territory permanently and has adopted a legal framework to this end.
Hungary and Slovenia have introduced resettlement legislation and plan to establish governmental working groups. Slovakia intends to follow in 2010, while in Poland and Bulgaria UNHCR has initiated some discussions on resettlement.
For the time being, the Czech Republic is still the pioneer of resettlement to Central Europe and the newly arrived refugees are happy to be here.
"I am eager to learn the language they speak here. Now we can start a new life," says Angel hugging her baby as she mounts the bus that is taking her to the refugee protection centre in Straz.
By Melita H. Sunjic