Schengen will not allow refugees to move west

Thursday 6, December 2007 Budapest, December 6 (UNHCR) – On 21 December, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia will join the European Union’s Schengen-zone. Within this zone travellers can cross borders without passport controls. It is easy to imagine that this will be good news for businessmen or tourists. The situation […]

Thursday 6, December 2007

Budapest, December 6 (UNHCR) – On 21 December, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia will join the European Union’s Schengen-zone. Within this zone travellers can cross borders without passport controls. It is easy to imagine that this will be good news for businessmen or tourists. The situation of refugees and asylum-seekers will not change considerably, although many of them nourish false hopes and misconceptions about new freedoms.

Khaleb , a Pakistani father of four is a recognised refugee in Slovakia. He is planning to leave once border controls are abolished. “The salary I earn in Slovakia is not enough for me to support my wife, four children and my mother.” The family came to Slovakia in 2005 but now Khaleb feels, he has a chance to leave.

Khaleb says that he will set off towards Western Europe and he is looking for options in the Netherlands: “In Slovakia, I can only find odd jobs or very badly paid ones. In the Netherlands, there is a strong Pakistani community and I am sure they will assist me in finding good work.”

As everybody else, refugees can travel through the Schengen zone as tourists, but they cannot stay longer than 90 days nor can they work in other EU countries without residence and work permits. But legal or illegal, Khaleb does not care, as long as he makes enough money to support his family.

For asylum seekers whose status determination procedure is still ongoing, travelling is even more problematic. EU legislation determines strictly that asylum seekers have to await a decision about their application in the country where they submitted it. They are usually not entitled to travel or work during the asylum procedure.

James tried and came back

The fingerprints of all asylum seekers are recorded in an EU wide data base called EURODAC. If asylum seekers leave before the decision on their case, they can be identified and returned to their countries of first asylum. There, they might even lose some of their entitlements such as pocket money or even end up in detention.

James from West Africa arrived in Hungary six months ago and submitted his asylum claim. Soon he was enticed by the promise of higher salaries and good prospects in Italy, but he was bitterly let down by reality. “I knew I couldn’t travel legally as an asylum-seeker, so I left Hungary through the green border. I went all the way to Italy and I spent two months there”, he says.

“Nobody employed me and after two weeks I had no money. I lived on the street and I was begging and hiding.” After two months James decided to come back to Hungary. “I knew that even if I am caught by border guards and end up in detention, I will have safety and three meals a day.” James was lucky. His disappearance had not been noticed by the authorities. He is now waiting for the decision about his asylum claim while staying with friends in Budapest.

Once asylum-seekers receive refugee status, they will be free to travel within the Schengen zone just like any other legal resident of the EU. For some, the possibility to travel will mean increased chances for self-sufficiency in their asylum countries. One of them is Daniel, who works for an international human rights agency in Budapest, Hungary.

“As a refugee from Kosovo, I am very lucky that I have a good job. However, working for an international organization means that I have to travel abroad for conferences and trainings. So far, I have had great difficulties getting visas into my refugee travel document for my official trips, as my refugee passport was only valid for one year. Because of this, I nearly lost my job. For me Schengen will not only mean visa free travels, but also, it will help me keep my job and support myself and my family.”

Integration problems push refugees West

False hopes and misconceptions about the new visa-free travel to Western Europe are so wide spread among the refugee and asylum seeker community that UNHCR Regional Representation in Budapest found it necessary to issue an information leaflet explaining the changes. “People are under the impression that in addition to crossing borders without passports, they can also settle down and work wherever they want within the Schengen zone”, says Lloyd Dakin, the UNHCR Regional Representative.

The wish to move westwards is based on misconceptions. In the new EU Member states, refugees and asylum-seekers face a number of difficulties finding jobs and integrating. “But the refugees also need to know that this is also true elsewhere in the EU, and they might create additional problems for themselves and their status if they move around irregularly”, says Dakin.

At the outer borders of the Schengen zone changes have taken place already. “Here, we will not see big changes on 21 December. Our borders have been compatible with Schengen for months now” says Miroslav Uchnar, Commander of the border guards in charge of Slovakia’s state border with Ukraine. The external borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia are already being monitored with a whole arsenal of technical equipment to prevent illegal migrants from entering.

“It is our mandate to make sure that, however strict border controls become, people who come to seek international protection can still enter. Each asylum-seeker must have access to fair and efficient procedures,” says Lloyd Dakin.

UNHCR’s preparations for the Schengen zone have been ongoing for months. The UN Refugee agency signed or is about to sign Agreements between the governments of the region and non-governmental partner organisations for thorough border monitoring mechanisms. These aim at ensuring that asylum-seekers are identified and their cases are examined on an individual basis.

Border guards are trained on a regular basis by UNHCR and its partner agencies to understand the difference between illegal migrants and refugees. Moreover, along the entire external land border, hundreds of UNHCR information dispensers have been placed at border crossings, in detention centres and border guard offices. They contain protection information in all relevant languages to inform new arrivals about their rights to seek asylum.

Andrea Szobolits and Melita H. Sunjic in Budapest, Hungary