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UNHCR chief visits emergency transit centre in Romania

News Stories, 28 May 2010

© UNHCR photo
High Commissioner António Guterres meets young Palestinian refugees at the emergency transit centre in Timisoara.

BUCHAREST, Romania, May 28 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has visited Europe's first emergency transit centre (ETC) in Romania, meeting Sri Lankan and Palestinian refugees.

The emergency transit centre was opened in the city of Timisoara in late 2008 by the Romanian government, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It's formal launch was in March 2009.

It provides a temporary haven for refugees in urgent need of evacuation from their first asylum countries due to life-threatening conditions. They can stay for up to six months before being resettled in third countries. A second transit centre was opened in Slovakia last July.

Guterres, who is on a two-day visit to Romania, visited the ETC on Thursday and met some of the 152 refugees of Palestinian and Sri Lankan origin currently staying there and awaiting resettlement. One group of 99 had arrived at the centre earlier this week after an exhausting 26-hour journey to Romania from the desert camp of Al-Walid in Iraq, where they had spent years.

"This is a pioneering project which answers to a clear need shown by the Uzbek operation," Guterres said, referring to Romania's agreement in July 2005 to temporarily shelter 439 Uzbek refugees airlifted from Kyrgyzstan and eventually resettled. The operation helped pave the way for the establishment of the ETC.

"UNHCR was in need then, and you see who your friends are in times of need. I want to express my deepest appreciation to the Romanian government and people for hosting this emergency transit centre," said Guterres, who also planted a "tree of wishes" in the centre.

Among those at the centre, was an 80-year-old Palestinian man from Iraq whose energy belied his age. He said he craved stability. "I want any citizenship, just so I can visit my sons and daughters, scattered all over the world," he said.

A young Sri Lankan woman said she was forced from her home during the long struggle that ended last year between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. She made her way to India, Singapore and Indonesia before being flown to Romania. "Even though I hadn't heard of Romania before, I really like it here. I feel really good," she said.

More than 600 refugees have transited the ETC in Timisoara since it opened in 2008, the same year that Romania passed legislation making it one of the few countries ready to accept refugees for resettlement. A first group of refugees from Myanmar is expected to arrive in the country from Malaysia in early June.

In Bucharest on Friday, the High Commisioner held talks with top officials, including Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc.

By Claudia Liute in Bucharest, Romania

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The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

In an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the U.N. refugee agency – whose mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution – has kicked off a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation to aid tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia. UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka for nearly 20 years and has the largest operational presence in the country with seven offices, 113 staff and a strong network of partnerships in place. The day of the tsunami, UNHCR opened up its warehouses in the island nation and began distributing existing stockpiles – including plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people.

UNHCR estimates that some 889,000 people are now displaced in Sri Lanka, including many who were already displaced by the long-running conflict in the north. Prior to the tsunami, UNHCR assisted 390,000 people uprooted by the war. UNHCR is now expanding its logistical and warehouse capacity throughout the island to facilitate delivery of relief items to the needy populations, including in the war-affected area. The refugee agency is currently distributing relief items and funding mobile health clinics to assist the injured and sick.

Picking Up the Pieces in Sri Lanka

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

Peaceful days and a safe environment is probably more than these Palestinian and Sudanese refugees expected when they were stuck in a desert camp in Iraq. Now they are recovering at a special transit centre in the Romanian city of Timisoara while their applications for resettlement in a third country are processed.

Most people forced to flee their homes are escaping from violence or persecution, but some find themselves still in danger after arriving at their destination. UNHCR uses the centre in Romania to bring such people out of harm's way until they can be resettled.

The Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara was opened in 2008. Another one will be formally opened in Humenné, Slovakia, within the coming weeks. The ETC provides shelter and respite for up to six months, during which time the evacuees can prepare for a new life overseas. They can attend language courses and cultural orientation classes.

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

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