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