Border guards at summer school learn a new approach to asylum-seekers

Monday 9, July 2012 BUCHAREST, July 9 (UNHCR) – A couple stepped up to the passport control booth at Bucharest Otopeni airport with two forged passports, clearly not their own. The husband’s face did not remotely match the passport photo; the woman’s head and body was entirely covered.   When asked […]

Monday 9, July 2012

BUCHAREST, July 9 (UNHCR) – A couple stepped up to the passport control booth at Bucharest Otopeni airport with two forged passports, clearly not their own. The husband’s face did not remotely match the passport photo; the woman’s head and body was entirely covered.   When asked by border officials to accompany them for questioning, the man became irritated and aggressive towards his wife – grabbing her by the shoulders and dragging her to the interview room.

The incident coincided with a visit to the airport by the participants of the Regional Summer Academy for European Border Guards, organised by UNHCR and the Romanian General Inspectorate of the Border Police in Bucharest late last month. Most of them were paralysed by the shock of the drama which unfolded before their eyes, but not the Macedonian Dushanka Naumoska.

Furious at the woman’s treatment by her husband and lack of reaction from border officials, Naumoska agitated for her colleagues to do something. Tension mounted as the group watched through the glass windows of the interview room the woman silenced by her husband whenever she tried to speak, without any intervention from border officials.

Some minutes later the couple left the room and the woman, lifting her disguise, was revealed to be a UNHCR officer, while her ‘husband’ was a local border guard in role play. The whole scene was a set up for the students of the summer academy.

“I have seen many situations for the six years of my service as border official but still couldn’t stop being taken by my emotions. My only thought was that we, the UNHCR people and the border guards from several countries were witnessing this whole thing, we should not have allowed this to happen to a woman,” recalled Naumoska, senior inspector of the Western Macedonian Regional Centre for Border Affairs.

The role play was part of the week long academy designed to sensitize border guards to identify asylum-seekers among mixed migration flows, and ensure they can access protection. In the ‘debrief’, the group discussed the need to separate the couple so both people could be heard, and to have male and female interviewers and interpreters.

The academy, “Respecting the right to seek asylum while fighting against irregular migration,” was the first regional training of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe, and included participants from Belarus, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine, Poland, Romania Slovakia and Ukraine.

The ‘students’, who are meant to pass on their newly acquired knowledge at home, learned about the European legal framework and basic principles of refugee protection, and discussed issues directly affecting their daily work. They analyzed the role of border officials in the protection of refugees and the challenges of ethical behaviour and communication at border points. A key message of the training was that asylum-seekers are not illegal immigrants or criminals and should not be treated as such, even though they often cross borders irregularly or have false travel documents.

In another simulation later in the week, the border guards themselves played out their own roles when confronted with someone who may need protection.  This time an asylum-seeker presenting false documents (played by an UNHCR officer) was questioned first at passport control then led off for more detailed questioning. Here, the workshop participants showed what they had learned in the course. The exercise underlined the importance of having an interpreter, of the balance between compassion and official distance, and the fact that a female asylum-seeker should be questioned, if possible, by another woman in order to make her feel secure.

Photo: Participants prepare their presentation on a border scenario they had to analyse. © UNHCR/E. Simon

“The participants do not learn only from the presentations, lectures and study visits. They benefit tremendously from the contacts they establish here and from each other’s good practices,” said Igor Ciobanu, Regional Protection Officer from UNHCR Regional Representation for Central Europe in Budapest.

The value in learning from neighbouring colleagues was not lost on participants. “Before coming to Bucharest I thought that we have our own laws and regulations, we do our job and it is none of anyone else’s business,” said Valery Timchenko of the Department for Work with Aliens of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service.

“But then I listened to the Romanian experience here and realized that there is a room to do things better than we do today,” continued Timchenko who has 20 years experience in different border posts.

In current Ukrainian practice, if an illegal migrant does not explicitly ask for asylum, border guards direct the case to court with an almost inevitable recommendation to send the person back to the country he or she arrived from. Timchenko said the practice should be changed, with Ukrainian border guards being more sensitive to potential asylum cases and turning to immigration officials to handle cases where there is any chance a person may need protection. Once at home, Timchenko said he will initiate the appropriate changes to the procedure at the Ministry of Interior. “This is not us, border guards who have to decide these delicate questions,” he added.

UNHCR plans to run similar courses in the years to come and hopes to expand the number of countries participating to ensure full coverage across Central and Eastern Europe.

Erno Simon in Bucharest, Romania