Asylum-an elusive dream for Iraqis in Romania
"We arrived in Romaniain a trailer," 28-year old Iraqi asylum seeker Ali recalled through an interpreter.
Ali sat around a table with two other Iraqisand fellow residents of the Gociu camp for asylum seekers on the outskirts of the city. He recalled how all three were smuggled into Romania from Turkey in a trailer.
They said they first had to walk through mountainous terrain for seven nights, to pass through Iran and then to Turkey. Ali said he paid $3,000 to get from Iraq to Romania because he kept getting caught along the way and had to pay extra money.
Hassan, a middle-aged Iraqi asylum seeker who declined to give his real name, said he paid $1,350, out of which $900 was the trailer ride.
The asylum seekers in this story were not identified for their safety and their families' safety in Iraq. They were not photographed for the same reason.
All three are asking the Romanian government for permission to remain here and start a new life.
Ali arrived in Romania in December. He left nine sisters and his mother behind in Baghdad. He said he fled Iraq because he was against the regime, being a Shiite Muslim and a member of a political party opposed to the then-Saddam Hussein regime. In March 1999, a failed attempt to overthrow the regime cost him six months in prison, he said. His brother, who also took part in the attempt, was arrested and later died at the hands of the regime.
Ali worked as a tailor and opened his own shop in Baghdad, but the authorities confiscated all his goods, he said.
He chose to come to Romania because, "Romanians had the same problems like us in the past, and we thought you would understand us. What I heard about Romania were only good things, but what I see here is a very big difference."
Trying to get legal
Iraqis applied for asylum in Romaniamore frequently than any other nationality in 2001-2002, said Nicolae Carcu, president of the Romanian National Council for Refugees. CNRR is a non-governmental organization assisting asylum seekers and refugees with legal, social and medical problems.
But their chances of success are slim.
"From my information, it is true that in Romaniathe acceptance rate of Iraqi asylum seekers as refugees was smaller than in other countries from the European Union," Carcu said. "We had a 10 percent rate of acceptance, so in this case I don't think it is smaller or significantly different from other years."
Enshrined in Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right "to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."
Once in the country, Ali embarked on the long and difficult legal process required to receive refugee status – a process made all the more difficult by officials skeptical of asylum seekers' motives.
Romaniais considered by many to be a transit country for illegal immigrants, and asylum seekers are often suspected of using the country as a springboard to the west by authorities.
"In many cases (application for asylum) is just a pretext or an abuse of the asylum right just for the purpose of extending their stay and preparing to move on," said Carcu. "In my opinion about 95 percent of the asylum seekers come illegally."
After submitting the request, an officer from the National Office for Refugees (ONR) – which is part of the Internal Affairs Ministry – puts together a file, interviews the asylum seeker and decides whether the request has valid grounds or not, said ONR spokeswoman Monica Bizau.
Evan, 24, is an Iraqi asylum seeker who came legally to Romania with his family in December. They first fled to Jordan in 1998 after Evan's father left the family to hide from the Al Baath regime members who wanted to arrest him.
"There is a law in Iraq saying if they want you and they don't catch you, they may take your mother, brother, father, anybody, to force you to come back," he said.
He wanted to go to college but was not accepted because he didn't join the Al Baath party. The family lived illegally in Jordan where Evan worked as a carpet weaver until he came to Romania with his sick mother, two brothers, a sister and a cousin. He said his younger brother is still in shock and stays inside. He doesn't talk to anybody.
When they arrived in Romania, Evan requested medical care for his sick mother and brother.
"So he (the officer) asked my mother if she agrees to have my brother seen by a doctor. She said yes. Sign this paper. She signed the paper. Ok, we will send him to a doctor, and 'till now the doctor never appeared," he said.
Evan said his family spent $12,000 to get to Romania, out of which $2,000 were delivered to an Arab at Otopeni airport in order to let authorities know they are asking for asylum.
"They interviewed me for six and a half hours," Ali said. "And the translation was very bad."
Raluca Popescu, Ali's lawyer, said, "The interpreter may not understand the exact words. Haven't you ever played the telephone game?"
Evan's family was interviewed at a camp near the airport.
He said he told officials his story, but he doesn't believe it was translated correctly. As a result, he said he feared officials could deny his refugee status based on false information.
"There was a lawyer from CNRR. I asked for her, and there was an officer who made the interview and a translator. I refused to make the interview because of the translator, 'cause I don't want an Iraqi translator," Evan said.
Evan belongs to the Mandean religion, whose members he said are persecuted in Iraq. The Mandeans are a Baptist sect with only tens of thousands of members located mainly in Southern Iraq.
He said he asked for an English interpreter, or for the lawyer to translate from English, because he said he wasn't comfortable speaking to an Iraqi translator. But he was refused, and the interview was carried out in Arabic while the officer wrote in Romanian, he said.
"After the interview he asked me if I wanted to have the interview read," Evan said. "My answer was you translate and he writes, you work with him, I don't know what you translate, and if you read it again, you read what you want, not what you translated."
Bizau disagreed that there are inaccuracies in translations.
"Under no circumstances (is inaccuracy in interpreting possible), not just anybody comes here as an interpreter."
Carcu said, "During the interview, the asylum seeker is made aware of his rights and obligations and, according to the procedure, is asked if he agrees with the interpreter, if they can understand each other, and at the end he is read the interview. And if he agrees with it, he signs it.
"So, if the procedure is respected, it is hard for me to believe that after listening to his interview he can say, no, I don't agree with what has been written and said," he added.
ONR denied both Ali and Evan refugee status in late December. Authorities said they found inconsistencies in their statements.
Popescu, Ali's lawyer, said that Ali could have explained the inconsistency had he been asked. "But it is the inconsistency that is speculated to refuse (the asylum request)," she said.
Both took the next legal step and contested the ONR decision in the local court.
The refugee center
Until the court pronounces the final decision, the asylum seekers are accommodated for free at Gociu camp.
At the beginning of April there were 33 Iraqi asylum seekers in Gociu camp, among them six children and five women, according to the Romanian Youth Association for the United Nations, an organization assisting refugees in the centers.
Iraqi asylum seekers interviewed for this story said only one Iraqi family living in the center has the refugees status.
While in the camp, asylum seekers are given 16,900 lei per day (approximately 50 cents) to buy food they can cook themselves, said Bizau. If they choose not to live in the camp they are also given 11,200 lei per day (approximately 35 cents) for accommodation. They are not allowed to leave Bucharest.
"This is all the Ministry for Internal Affairs can afford to pay," she said.
But people in the camp usually receive help from NGOs and the community.
"If we want to go to the city and shop, we don't have the money," said Hassan. He said he tried to work in a nearby shop but was refused. Since asylum seekers have an indefinite status, it is difficult for them to find a steady job and make money.
Asylum seekers are free to leave the camp during the day until 10 p.m. But many of them remain inside.
"We sleep most of the time because when you sleep you don't think about anything," said Hassan.
Evan said they usually spend their nights talking to one another, playing games and sharing memories. Durig the day, they do their chores, sleep or walk around the camp. " We try not to get too far because you have to pay (spend money)," Evan said.
Little hope left after final refusal
If the local court denies the refugee status, asylum seekers can contest the decision at the Bucharest court. Both Ali and Evan did.
Ali's appeal was not accepted by the Bucharest court because the postal service failed to deliver his court records, he said.
When the court gives a final decision to refuse refugee status, foreigners have 15 days to leave the country. Another possibility is to request the approval to begin a new legal procedure to receive refugee status, if new elements regarding their situation have appeared.
The conflict in Iraq could be one such element for Ali's case.
Even though his temporary visa expired, and he can no longer live in the camp, Ali is still in Bucharest living illegally, waiting for ONR's decision on a new procedure.
If he gets accepted, he will settle down in Romania for good, he said.
"I will start from the beginning, build my life, work, because I lost everything in Iraq," Ali said.
Evan also spoke of his loss. "I lost the past, I lost the present and I don't know about the future," he said. "Nothing is good.
"I've not tried to cross the border illegally, even though I was refused here. I'm tired. But I still have a little hope left to get the status and stay here. I'm tired from running away from country to country."
Some of the Iraqi asylum seekers have to face the possibility of returning to their home country.
"We must see the situation of Iraq now. I don't think Iraq will be quiet for a long time because we have many parties fighting to take the government," Ali said.
"I don't wish to go back to Iraq for many reasons, first of all, every street, every point in Iraq will remind me of my father, who can bring me my father back?" said Evan."Second thing, we don't have anything, we lost everything. Third, my religious problem does not end with Saddam, it's only starting," he added.
"I speak for all the Iraqis here, we want Romania but Romania doesn't want us."