By Kit Gillet
Rise in boats intercepted by Romanian coastguard fuels fears that smugglers are trying to reactivate dangerous transit passage to Europe
Illegal migrants are intercepted by Romanian border border police in the Black Sea, 24 August.
A dangerous new route for refugees trying to reach Europe is thought to have opened up in the Black Sea, which coastguards in Romania are warning could prove more deadly than the current Mediterranean crossings.
As neighbouring countries struggle with the refugee crisis that has seen millions flee conflicts in the Middle East, Romania has largely been bypassed. However the past few days suggest its waters are being eyed by smugglers keen to avoid crackdowns elsewhere.
On Saturday, the Romanian coastguard intercepted a fishing boat in the Black Sea with 97 migrants on board, 36 of them children. Border police said that they were Iranian and Iraqi nationals, picked up close to the Romanian-Bulgarian sea border. The evening before, coastguards had spotted another boat heading for Romanian territorial waters. The fishing boat, carrying around 120 people, was intercepted by border police and handed over to Turkish coastguards.
On 3 September, a fishing boat carrying 87 migrants, was stopped as it sailed towards the Romanian coast on the Black Sea. That boat is believed to have set out from the northern coast of Turkey.
The coastguard had also intercepted a boat with 68 asylum seekers off the Romanian coast on 21 August and a few days later, 150 Syrian refugees were discovered boarding a fishing boat in Turkey heading for Romania. On 13 August the coastguard had found 69 Iraqi migrants in a boat in Romanian waters.
While these are still small numbers compared with the hundreds of thousands who have made the perilous crossing between Turkey and Greece, it could still be a significant development.
Romania’s interior minister, Carmen Dan, visited the Black Sea border police last week. “We treat migrants as people who need help, not criminals,” she said.
Krzysztof Borowski, a spokesperson for the EU border protection agency Frontex, said it was too early to discuss the incidents as a change in trend, pointing to the limited number of incidents over a short period of time.
But he said Frontex was viewing the incident as an attempt by smugglers in Turkey to reactivate the Black Sea route. “In the past it has been used. In 2014 we had 430 people arrive by the Black Sea to Romania and Bulgaria. In 2015 it was 68. In 2016 it was one. Perhaps there is a move to reactivate, for smugglers to put people through there and test it,” he said.
According to Borowski, weather conditions on the Black Sea are often worse than in the Mediterranean, with stronger winds. “Migrants are in bigger danger, especially if they take smaller vessels. It is a rough sea and a difficult one to cross,” he said.
Gabriela Leu, a spokesperson for UNHCR Romania, says that while it was difficult to draw a conclusion from a handful of incidents, “what is clear is that when legal avenues are closed, people fleeing war and persecution take desperate measures to find safety”.
She said that the agency was very concerned about all refugees and migrants who take to the sea in unseaworthy boats, and especially about people who entrust their safety to human smugglers. “The likelihood of dying while trying to reach Europe along people-smuggling routes is alarmingly high.”
Romanian authorities have so far taken into custody six individuals on suspicion of human trafficking related to the incidents, including two Turks, a Bulgarian, a Syrian, an Iraqi and a Cyprian.
Sea routes are notoriously dangerous. Between January and July 2017, 2,224 migrants died trying to cross the Med, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Border police say no one has died trying to cross into Romania in recent years.
Romania, which is outside the Schengen zone, has largely escaped the refugee crisis; few migrants have targeted Romania as an end destination and most have chosen more well-trodden routes to western Europe. However, the number of people trying to cross Romania’s land borders illegally has also been on the rise.
According to data from the Romanian border police, in the first seven months of 2017, 2,800 people were caught trying to illegally cross Romania’s borders, up from 1,624 in the whole of 2016. The majority, 1,370 people, were from Iraq, followed by 525 from Syria and 319 from Pakistan.
Questions remain over Romania’s preparedness to handle an influx of refugees. The country was one of the nations that initially resisted the setting up of an EU-wide quota in 2015 to redistribute refugees among member states. However, it later agreed to take in around 4,200 asylum seekers. As of the end of August, 727 people had been relocated to Romania, though there are suggestions that many are choosing not to stay in the country due to the limited opportunities.
“They don’t want to come to Romania to stay, they just want to get into the EU and then move on,” said Răzvan Samoilă, executive director at Arca, an NGO in Bucharest that offers assistance to refugees and migrants. “It is the same thing with the resettlement procedure,” he said. “Already, we’ve had four groups coming to Romania and none of them are now in Romania.”
Samoilă said these latest incidents on the Black Sea are test runs by smugglers, although he believes that the water and weather conditions are against them. “The Mediterranean is not like the Black Sea. In the Black Sea, you don’t know what will happen in 20 minutes’ time,” he said. “These migrants who took this route on the Black Sea must have experienced a very hard journey.”