Guest post by Dr Bénédicte Michalon, Research Fellow, French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), ADESS (CNRS – University of Bordeaux), and Leader of the TerrFerme project (funded by the French National Agency for Research and the Aquitaine Regional Council). 

In 2010 I was told by an officer of the Romanian Office for Immigration that immigration was not a political issue in Romania. Yet, in the past two decades the country has developed considerable efforts in adopting and fine-tuning legal and institutional tools to manage and control migration. Drawing on my recent research, this post considers this apparent contradiction when outlining the development of migration control in post-communist, post European Union Romania.

Romania (Source: BBC News)
In December 1989, the communist regime in Romania, like so many in the region, fell. As it fell, the borders opened, and for the first time in decades, Romanian citizens rediscovered the freedom of moving out of their country. At first, most visited neighbouring countries, yet in the years that followed, migration paths and networks expanded. While remaining an important country of departure, Romania soon became a space of transit and arrival for various categories of international migrants (permanent, temporary, regular or irregular, asylum seekers, professional, family, qualified or not qualified, etc.). These flows are globalised, coming both from neighbouring countries as from further afield, including the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, Latin America, and Africa.

Romania, through its transformation as a destination for immigrants, has, like other countries, developed policies dedicated to the management and the control of arriving populations. Such policies, however, have not sprung solely from national practice. Instead, they reflect the European integration process of Romania itself, revealing a ‘Europeanisation’ of migration control within the country’s borders.

In the initial period after communism, the rules for entry and stay in Romania were quite liberal. Citizens from neighbouring countries could enter as tourists with identity cards. At the same time, Romanian legislation on foreign investments remained flexible, enabling the rise of trans-border trade from the region (e.g., Moldova and Ukraine) as well as from more remote countries (e.g., Turkey, but also China and Pakistan).

Eventually, however, international bodies , such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) began to pressure the Romanian authorities regarding asylum and other forms of migration. Romania entered into an agreement with the UNHCR in 1990 in order to create a framework for managing asylum issues, finally signing, the Geneva Convention on refugees the following year. However, those commitments translated slowly into an effective system for the management of asylum seekers. In 1991, for instance, when 315 Somali asylum seekers arrived in the country, Romanian institutions and laws were unable to fully respond. A civil servant in charge of asylum told me in 2010 “we did not have anybody to take care of them. (…) They arrived in Bucharest, we found some housing for them but we couldn’t provide more. There was no real asylum procedure. (…) Until 1998 the UNHCR dealt with this kind of people. The Romanian State provided housing but that was all. We couldn’t do more.” Step by step this field of public action was reorganised. The Romanian Comittee for the Issue of Migrations (Comitetul Român pentru Probleme de Migrări, CRM)―a specialised, inter-ministerial institution responsible for immigration and asylum―was created in 1991 but placed under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior in 1995 on account of its inefficiency, one of the many changes it would undergo in the coming years.

By the mid-1990s, Romania had begun to negotiate entrance to the European Union (EU). Fearing that the country would let too many migrants through its borders, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands urged for further reforms, demanding the government strengthen its administrative and legal tools for controlling migration. In response, Romania took up the so-called “tolerance” (tolerare) principle established by German law (Duldung) and subsequently taken up by a number of other former communist states. The principle of “tolerance” allowed a foreigner to remain in Romania for a short period of time, without providing any further rights. It was recently reformed in 2011 in order to allow the “tolerated” foreigners to work in Romania.

Romania joined the EU in 2007 (Source: BBC News)
The communautarisation of immigration and asylum policy launched by the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 changed the scale of the negotiations and influence from Europe. Bringing Romania together with the European bodies led to numerous further legal and institutional reforms. The regulations on entry and stay in the Romanian territory, access to Romanian nationality, and the right to asylum were either revised or created anew. The first Romanian law on asylum dates to this period (see, for example, the law of 2 April 1996 on the status and regime of refugees in Romania, Legea privind statutul şi regimul refugiaţilor în România). The institutions managing migration were reorganised so as to bring them closer to what exists in other EU member states. In particular, the Romanian Comittee for the Issue of Migrations was replaced by two new institutions, the National Office for Refugees (Oficiul Naţional pentru Refugiaţ, ONR), created in 2000, and the Authority for Foreigners (Autoritatea pentru Straini, APS), created in 2004.

The European integration process also shaped the political understanding of migration by the Romanian authorities within a paradigm of border control. Incrementally, the Romanian policy began to focus more on the fight against so-called “irregular” migrations; a process embodied in the opening of two detention centres for foreigners awaiting deportation in 1999 and 2003, as well as in the growing number of deportations.

Rădăuţi Reception Centre (Photo: B. Michalon)
Similarly, the law on asylum was renewed in 2000 leading to a significant decline in the number of asylum applications. Following the recommendations of external funders, Romania adopted the policy of “resettlement” promoted by the UNHCR from 2005 onward. The country first hosted a group of 400 Uzbek asylum-seekers who fled their country after the revolt of Andijan in May 2005 and who were granted asylum thereafter in other countries (the United States and Canada primarily). Since then, Romania has hosted several groups of asylum-seekers (such as Burmese in 2010) in transit towards their final host country.

Immigration is not a political problem in Romania, it is not a subject of discussion,” a civil servant of the Romanian Office for Immigration told me in 2010. This opinion is largely shared by other professionals, be they working for state institutions or the NGOs in the field. Immigration and asylum remain underpoliticised: they are hardly discussed by political parties and the legislative texts are not yet subjected to the vote of Parliament, perhaps explaining the ease of activity by the authorities since Romania entered the EU in 2007. At this point the country adopted a whole set of European tools to manage and control migration: visas were imposed to the nationals of neighboring states outside the EU in 2007; readmission agreements were not only signed at the community level and came into effect but were also complemented by 36 bilateral agreements between Romania and EU Member States as well as extra-European countries (e.g., Lebanon, India, Turkey). Romania integrated the Dublin II regulation and took part in several operations of the Frontex border agency.

At the national level, the National Office for Refugees and the Authority for Foreigners were gathered in one single institution in 2007, the Romanian Office for Immigration (Oficiul Român pentru Imigrări), which, under the rule of the Ministry of Interior, was reorganised and renamed the General Inspectorate for Immigration (Inspectoratul General pentru Imigrări) in 2012. Moreover, the government adopted a “National strategy for immigration” (Strategia Natională pentru Imigrări), first covering the years 2007-2010 and later renewed for 2011-2014. This strategy is strongly polarised around migration control, on the one hand, and the management of “useful” and “selected immigration,” on the other, reflecting of the two “heavy” trends of migration management at the European level.

This brief overview of the way Romania has built a migration policy in the past twenty years is revealing of how migration and asylum have been, and continue to be, central issues in the relations between the country and the EU, remaining nevertheless secondary on the national political scene. Importantly, Romanian policy is also getting closer to the European management of migration at legislative and institutional levels, a process now facilitated by the transfer of an understanding of migration focused on control.

Click here to see UNHCR images on life in Rădăuţi Reception Centre, Romania. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Michalon, B (2013) The Control of Migration in Post-communist Romania. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/control-migration-romania (Accessed [date]).