Refugees evacuated from desert camp to safe haven in Romania

News Stories, 29 January 2009

© UNHCR/M.Sidky
Some of the refugees on a flight carrying them to Timisoara in Romania.

TIMISOARA, Romania, January 29 (UNHCR) It's bitterly cold in the western Romanian city of Timisoara, but this is a minor irritant for one happy group of visitors who've become accustomed to a life filled with sandstorms, soaring heat, dangerous creepy-crawlies and numbing boredom over the past four years.

"I do not mind the winter or the cold. We are staying in proper buildings and the rooms are warm," said 17-year-old Hamid,* one of 138 Sudanese refugees brought to the special Emergency Transit Centre [ETC] in Timisoara on Tuesday after a long journey from their tented camp on Iraq's border with Jordan.

They were the second group to be temporarily housed at the pioneering ETC, which was set up by the Romanian government, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to house people in urgent need of international protection until their applications for resettlement have been processed.

A first group of 97 Sudanese refugees from K-70 camp in Iraq arrived here last December 17. The United States has agreed to accept all the Sudanese.

The Sudanese, most of whom came from the troubled Darfur region, said they were elated to have left the makeshift camp, which will now be closed. "We could not leave the camp. The moment Iraqi militias saw our dark skin, they would attack us," claimed Hamid. "It was horrible."

Social workers at the ETC told UNHCR that many of the new arrivals were still traumatized by their experiences at K-70, which is located in the Al Anbar desert some 75 kilometres east of the Iraq-Jordan border. Hazards include snakes, scorpions, sandstorms and scalding hot days followed by cold nights.

A temporary stay at the ETC will give them much needed space before continuing to their resettlement destinations, which will be a far cry from the homes that they cannot return to because of the volatile political and security situation in Darfur, where some 2.5 million people are internally displaced.

The younger members of the group were generally adjusting to their new environment better than their elders. "It's good here; I am happy," said Zaman,* aged 11, who quickly found the centre's classroom. "Here we can learn and study."

His older brother Khalid* was looking forward to life in their resettlement country. "In the United States, I want to study at university," said the 17-year-old, who had not yet decided what subject he would like to read. "Ask me next year," he said, with a big smile. Other children, clad in new winter clothing, were happily exploring the ETC playground.

The Sudanese refugees brought to Timisoara left Darfur many years ago and arrived in Iraq during the rule of President Saddam Hussein. But after a US-led coalition force ousted the Iraqi leader in 2003, the Sudanese became the targets of abuse, blackmail, eviction and assaults by militias. A total of 17 Sudanese were killed between December 2004 and February 2005 in Iraq.

Because of this targeting, the refugees tried to flee Iraq but were not successful. They became stranded in K-70 near the town of Al Rutbah, where they lived in dire conditions and continued to be harassed by militias. UNHCR has delivered humanitarian aid to the group while trying to find a durable solution for them.

The ETC in Timisoara is the first of its kind in Europe. It can accommodate up to 200 people and will provide a temporary safe haven up to six months for individuals or groups who need to be evacuated immediately from life-threatening situations before being resettled. Machiel Salomons, UNHCR's representative in Romania, put it succinctly: "The centre has a life-saving function."

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Melita H. Sunjic in Timisoara, Romania




UNHCR country pages

Iraq Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Iraq.

Donate to this crisis

CAR Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Central African Republic.

Donate to this crisis

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Battling the Elements in Chad

More than 180,000 Sudanese refugees have fled violence in Sudan's Darfur region, crossing the border to the remote desert of eastern Chad.

It is one of the most inhospitable environments UNHCR has ever had to work in. Vast distances, extremely poor road conditions, scorching daytime temperatures, sandstorms, the scarcity of vegetation and firewood, and severe shortages of drinkable water have been major challenges since the beginning of the operation. Now, heavy seasonal rains are falling, cutting off the few usable roads, flooding areas where refugees had set up makeshift shelters, and delaying the delivery of relief supplies.

Despite the enormous environmental challenges, UNHCR has so far managed to establish nine camps and relocate the vast majority of the refugees who are willing to move from the volatile border.

Battling the Elements in Chad

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Ahead of South Sudan's landmark January 9, 2011 referendum on independence, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese in the North packed their belongings and made the long trek south. UNHCR set up way stations at key points along the route to provide food and shelter to the travellers during their arduous journey. Several reports of rapes and attacks on travellers reinforced the need for these reception centres, where women, children and people living with disabilities can spend the night. UNHCR has made contingency plans in the event of mass displacement after the vote, including the stockpiling of shelter and basic provisions for up to 50,000 people.

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Chad: Relocation from the Border to Refugee Camps

Since fighting broke out in Sudan's western region of Darfur last year, more than 110,000 Sudanese refugees have fled into Chad. They are scattered along a 600-km stretch of desert borderland under a scorching sun during the day and freezing temperatures during the night.

Access to these refugees in this inhospitable region is difficult. Staff of the UN refugee agency drive for days to locate them. Bombing in the border zone and cross-border raids by militia from Sudan put the refugees at risk and underscore the urgent need to move them to camps in the interior. In addition, the approach of the rainy season in May will make the sandy roads impassable. Aid workers are racing against time in an attempt bring emergency relief to these refugees.

Chad: Relocation from the Border to Refugee Camps

Iraq: The Plight of the YazidisPlay video

Iraq: The Plight of the Yazidis

Tens of thousands of people, including ethnic Yazidis originating from the Sinjar area, have been forced to find shelter in schools and unfinished structures across northern Iraq since fleeing their homes. The UN refugee agency has been trying to help, opening camps to provide better shelter.
Iraq: Preparing for Winter in DohukPlay video

Iraq: Preparing for Winter in Dohuk

Efforts are under way in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring countries to prepare refugees and the internally displaced for winter. But UNHCR remains deeply concerned that a $58.45 million funding shortfall could leave as many as a million people out in the cold.
Iraq: The Generous GiverPlay video

Iraq: The Generous Giver

An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since the beginning of the year, with nearly half seeking refuge in the Kurdistan Region. As weary families began pouring into Dohuk, one local businessman built them a small camp equipped with tents, water, sanitation and electricity.