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Smugglers make test runs across even more deadly Black Sea route

The refugee crisis goes on, with Romanian coastguards claiming that a new route for refugees attempting to reach Europe could be even more dangerous than the current Mediterranean crossings

12 September 2017, 10:50am
Rise in boats intercepted by Romanian coastguard fuels fears that smugglers are trying to reactivate dangerous transit passage to Europe. Photo: Alexander Koerner
Rise in boats intercepted by Romanian coastguard fuels fears that smugglers are trying to reactivate dangerous transit passage to Europe. Photo: Alexander Koerner
A new route for refugees attempting to reach Europe is believed to have opened up in the Black Sea, which Romanian coastguards claim could prove more deadly than the current Mediterranean crossings.

Neighbouring countries are struggling with the refugee crisis, which has seen millions flee conflicts all over the world, primarily in the Middle East. Romania, however, has largely been bypassed. The past few days suggest that the surrounding waters are now being eyed by smugglers.

On Saturday, the Romanian coastguard intercepted a small fishing boat in the Black Sea, with 97 migrants on board, including 36 children.

Border police claimed that they were Iranian and Iraqi nationals, picked up close to the Romanian-Bulgarian sea border. The evening before, coastguards had spotted another boat heading for Romanian territorial waters. The fishing boat, carrying around 120 people, was intercepted by border police and handed over to Turkish coastguards.

On September 3, a fishing boat carrying 87 migrants, was intercepted as it was sailing towards the Romanian coast, believed to have set out from the northern coast of Turkey.

The coastguard had also intercepted a boat with 68 asylum seekers off the Romanian coast on August 21 and a few days later, 150 Syrian refugees were discovered boarding a fishing boat in Turkey heading for Romania. On August 13 the coastguard had found 69 Iraqi migrants in a boat in Romanian waters.

Though the numbers are small, by comparison to the large numbers who have made the dangerous crossing between Turkey and Greece, it could still be a significant development.

Carmen Dan, Romania’s interior minister, visited the Black Sea border police last week. “We treat migrants as people who need help, not criminals,” she said.

Krzysztof Borowski, a spokesperson for the EU border protection agency Frontex, said it was too early to discuss the incidents as a change in trend, commenting that currently, the number of incidents is limited and only over a short period of time.

He did say, however, that Frontex was viewing the incident as an attempt by smugglers in Turkey to reactivate the Black Sea route.

“In the past it has been used. In 2014 we had 430 people arrive by the Black Sea to Romania and Bulgaria. In 2015 it was 68. In 2016 it was one. Perhaps there is a move to reactivate, for smugglers to put people through there and test it,” he said.

According to Borowski, weather conditions on the Black Sea are often worse than in the Mediterranean, with stronger winds. “Migrants are in bigger danger, especially if they take smaller vessels. It is a rough sea and a difficult one to cross,” he said.

Gabriela Leu, a spokesperson for UNHCR Romania, says that while it was difficult to draw a conclusion from a handful of incidents, “what is clear is that when legal avenues are closed, people fleeing war and persecution take desperate measures to find safety”.

She claimed that the agency was very concerned about refugees and migrants who take to the sea in dangerous vessels and especially about people who entrust their safety to human smugglers. “The likelihood of dying while trying to reach Europe along people-smuggling routes is alarmingly high.”

Romanian authorities have so far taken into custody six individuals on suspicion of human trafficking related to the incidents, including two Turks, a Bulgarian, a Syrian, an Iraqi and a Cyprian.

Such routes are known for being incredibly dangerous. Between January and July 2017, 2,224 migrants have died during their attempt to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Border police claimed that no-one has died trying to cross into Romania in recent years.

Romania, which is outside the Schengen zone, has largely escaped the refugee crisis; few migrants have targeted Romania as an end destination and most have chosen routes to western Europe. However, the number of people trying to cross Romania’s land borders illegally has also been on the rise.

According to data from the Romanian border police, in the first seven months of 2017, 2,800 people were caught trying to illegally cross Romania’s borders, up from 1,624 in the whole of 2016. The majority, 1,370 people, were from Iraq, followed by 525 from Syria and 319 from Pakistan.

The question regarding Romania’s preparedness to handle the potential influx of refugees remains. It was one of the nations that initially resisted the setting up of an EU-wide quota in 2015, to re-distribute refugees among member states. It then did agree to accept around 4,200 asylum seekers later. As of the end of August, 727 people had been relocated to the country. Although, many are said to be leaving due to a lack of opportunity.

“They don’t want to come to Romania to stay, they just want to get into the EU and then move on,” said Răzvan Samoilă, executive director at Arca, an NGO in Bucharest that offers assistance to refugees and migrants. “It is the same thing with the resettlement procedure,” he said. “Already, we’ve had four groups coming to Romania and none of them are now in Romania.”

Samoilă believes that the latest incidents on the Black Sea are mere test runs by smugglers, though he does think that the sea and weather conditions are against them.

“The Mediterranean is not like the Black Sea. In the Black Sea, you don’t know what will happen in 20 minutes’ time,” he said. “The migrants who took this route on the Black Sea must have experienced a very hard journey”.