BUCHAREST – Rami Salama* sits with four other Syrians on a bench outside an asylum center in a Soviet-style neighborhood in the Romanian capital of Bucharest.
The five Syrian men just received Romanian travel documents, only three weeks after they came to the country under an E.U. relocation scheme.
But they are not celebrating. None of them wanted to come to Romania, but were assigned to the country by the European Asylum Support Office (EASO). Now they are worried about how to make a living in one of Europe’s poorest countries, with scant resources for integrating refugees.
“Even if I work day and night, I cannot support my family with the wages here,” Salama, a 36-year-old father of five, says.
His family fled northern Syria but got stuck in Greece after other European nations closed their borders. They enrolled in the E.U. relocation program, hoping to reach Western Europe. When assigned to Romania, they had no other options, bar staying in Greece without support or returning to Turkey.
The E.U. agreed last November to redistribute 160,000 refugees from Greece and Italy, where most arrive by boat. A year later, only 7,500 people have been relocated. Romania agreed to accept 6,205 refugees over two years, but so far, only 463 have arrived, according to EASO.
Yet the success of the relocation scheme depends on more than just the political will to take in refugees. The challenges that the small number of refugees relocated to Romania are already facing shows that any European relocation scheme needs to be backed by resources for integration in order to work.
“It is not enough to create some mechanisms of relocation, you also need to ensure resources and a proper system for receiving, housing and integrating the refugees in the countries,” says Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, research director of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Lund University in Sweden.
In Romania, people granted refugee status receive between six and 12 months of government support to cover expenses, transportation and rent, which amounts to $127 per month. After that, refugees must find a job to support themselves.
While Romania’s overall unemployment rate fell this year, it is very hard for refugees to find employment, says Carolina Marin, a senior protection associate for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Romania.
“Speaking the Romanian language is mandatory for most jobs here,” she says. “You also need some form of formal recognition of your qualifications, previous employment and degrees,” which is difficult if you didn’t arrive with a package of academic documents, Marin notes.
Meanwhile, Romanian authorities offer little employment assistance to refugees, a task mainly left to civil society groups, says Iluian Sandu, who works for the Romanian refugee integration nonprofit ARCA. “The Ministry of Labor should officially assist the refugees with finding jobs, but it only registers them in an [employment] database,” he says.
Mohammed Abu Issa found a job after arriving in Romania in February with his wife, five-year-old twins and a seven-month-old baby as part of the first group of Syrian refugees relocated to the country by the E.U.
Several Romanian NGOs point to him as the best example of refugee integration because of his job. Abu Issa, 39, is just grateful to be alive, and says he is in a better situation than most other refugees. But he doesn’t feel like a success story.
On a cigarette break behind his workplace, a seaside Arabic restaurant in the Romanian city of Constanta, Abu Issa is exhausted and worried about his family’s future. There was no other time to talk; he works seven days a week, at least 15 hours a day.
Since he got the job three months ago, he hasn’t had a day off and has not been able to save any of his wages. The family’s state support was cut off after he got a job, and the family are in debt after their journey to Greece. “I work until 2 a.m. or later, so I never see my children,” he says.
His wife, Um Ahmed, is left alone to care for the children in their small apartment. “We don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language,” she says.
She enrolled in a Romanian language class at the asylum center, but the teacher only showed up for the first class and never returned.
Refugee groups describe language teaching as the key to employment and therefore survival. But many refugees criticize the quality and schedule of Romania’s language courses.
The courses follow the pattern of the school year, and students are not separated by language level, so newcomers may join classes that have already been running for months, says Marin from UNHCR. “If getting employment is dependent on your language skills, and your language skills are acquired through two or four hours of teachings per week, it’s really a long and difficult process,” she says.
Some refugees simply give up on making a life in Romania, and head home or use their Romanian travel documents to try to find work in other E.U. countries, where they will not be able to claim benefits or seek asylum.
While their exact numbers are unknown, around 5,000 people have been granted refugee protection by Romania since 1991 – one of the smallest refugee populations in Europe – and only 2,584 people with protected status currently hold Romanian residency permits, according to UNHCR. This suggests at least half of Romania’s refugees left at some point.
“Every day I think about what I should do. Should we go back?” Abu Issa says. “If we leave for other European countries, we will get no support. But here we get no support either.”
Just three weeks after arriving in Romania, Salama and his cohort of relocated refugees are all considering leaving. “Not to get a wealthy life, but to survive,” he says.
Salama does not want more refugees to arrive. “Romania is supposed to get 6,000 refugees, but how are they supposed to handle them if they can’t help us?” he says.
*Rami Salama’s name has been altered to protect the family’s identity.
This article is an adapted and edited version of a story first published in Denmark’s Information newspaper.