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Crossing a border irregularly is not a crime for a refugee
Thursday 9, June 2011
BUDAPEST/LYUBIMETS, June 9 (UNHCR) - “Crossing a border irregularly, is not a crime for a refugee”, explains UNHCR's Regional Protection Officer Igor Ciobanu. He is one of the speakers at the International Border Police Conference that brought together hundreds of border guards and experts in Budapest from 8 to 10 June.
Ciobanu was not speaking about how to best control a border. “This is a perfectly legitimate concern of the States”, he says, “but there are not only economic migrants and smugglers entering countries irregularly. There are also people seeking asylum, and it is crucial that the border guards can handle their claims according to international standards.” Therefore, he explained in his presentation to the plenary in the Hungarian capital, “we as UN Refugee Agency do not leave border guards alone. Through training and constant cooperation we and non-governmental organizations can help them identify asylum seekers and help them get access to the asylum procedure”. Also victims of human trafficking or torture, women at risk, elderly refugees or unaccompanied minors deserved their special attention, stressed the UNHCR expert.
So everything alright with the access to the asylum procedure? “There is still room for quite some improvement”, UNHCR´s Ciobanu states, “while some communication problems along all Central European borders could be resolved, sometimes, interpreters for the Asian or African languages of the refugees are still lacking. We also need to make sure every asylum claim is registered and no person in need of protection could be sent back”.
One worrying trend in border dealings is the increased use of detention for innocent asylum seekers, including children. They are put behind bars just because they did not enter the country with a valid travel document. Hungary, a country with an external EU border, holds a very strict detention regime on people committing this minor administrative offence of crossing the border unlawfully. While UNHCR recognizes that States have the responsibility to monitor their borders, persons seeking asylum need to be given access to the territory even without a proper documentation. Despite of these circumstances that are typical for persons having fled in a haste, the Hungarian authorities detain them after irregular entry. The current in-house rules in the detention centres echo the standards and rules applicable to high security prisons in Hungary. As UNHCR fact finding missions showed, sometimes, asylum seekers have to endure harsher and tougher circumstances than criminals in regular Hungarian penitentiaries.
Also asylum seekers arriving to Bulgaria through the land border with Turkey, normally do not expect a long period of detention, before the State Agency for Refugees even registers their request for protection. "We keep asylum seekers in the border zone for the mandatory 24 hours of police detention", says a border patrol guard at the Kapitan Andreevo crossing point in South-East Bulgaria. "We forward their protection claim to the State Agency for Refugee and from there it is up to them". This State Agency is tasked to accommodate men, women and children seeking asylum in an open reception centre.
Instead, asylum seekers are sent to the closed centre for undocumented migrants in Lyubimets near the Bulgarian-Turkish border. The Lyubimets centre, which is operated by the Ministry of Interior, opened its doors in March 2011 with the sole purpose of accommodating undocumented migrants before deportation to their home country. “This place is not meant and not designed and not appropriate for asylum seekers”, says UNHCR Protection Officer Petya Karayaneva.
The law provides that claims for international protection will be registered and a procedure will be opened, only when the asylum seeker is physically present at the State Agency for Refugees. "I don't want to stay here anymore" says 15 year old Shatha Ghaib* from Iraq, in tears, as she asks UNHCR’s Karayaneva to help her leave the Lyubimets detention centre. "The State Agency for Refugees must transfer all asylum seekers from Lyubimets to its open reception centers”, the UNHCR expert makes clear.
Meanwhile, the State Agency for Refugees is waiting for the Pastrogor open transit centre to start its operation. The centre is only several kilometers from Lyubimets and will significantly shorten the journey from the border to the capital Sofia. However, the latest opening date of 31 May has come and gone, while asylum seekers, including young children, single and elderly women continue to wait in detention for their fair and efficient procedure to begin.
But not all asylum seekers feel like criminals when they make the first experience with Central European authorities. Women from Afghanistan who the UNHCR met in a Reception Centre in the North Eastern Romanian town of Radauti were full of praise for the first Romanians they came across in their lives –the border police. “They saved our lives”, the Afghan ladies said. “They saved our lives and those of our children”, they repeated. These asylum seekers from Asia had reached Romania in a truck where the border guards found them in a bad shape, following a long and hard journey, full of fear and uncertainty.
*Name changed for protection reasons
Roland Schönbauer in Budapest, Hungary
with Boris Cheshirkow in Lyubimets, Bulgaria