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UNHCR chief visits emergency transit centre in Romania

News Stories, 28 May 2010

© UNHCR photo
High Commissioner António Guterres meets young Palestinian refugees at the emergency transit centre in Timisoara.

BUCHAREST, Romania, May 28 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has visited Europe's first emergency transit centre (ETC) in Romania, meeting Sri Lankan and Palestinian refugees.

The emergency transit centre was opened in the city of Timisoara in late 2008 by the Romanian government, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It's formal launch was in March 2009.

It provides a temporary haven for refugees in urgent need of evacuation from their first asylum countries due to life-threatening conditions. They can stay for up to six months before being resettled in third countries. A second transit centre was opened in Slovakia last July.

Guterres, who is on a two-day visit to Romania, visited the ETC on Thursday and met some of the 152 refugees of Palestinian and Sri Lankan origin currently staying there and awaiting resettlement. One group of 99 had arrived at the centre earlier this week after an exhausting 26-hour journey to Romania from the desert camp of Al-Walid in Iraq, where they had spent years.

"This is a pioneering project which answers to a clear need shown by the Uzbek operation," Guterres said, referring to Romania's agreement in July 2005 to temporarily shelter 439 Uzbek refugees airlifted from Kyrgyzstan and eventually resettled. The operation helped pave the way for the establishment of the ETC.

"UNHCR was in need then, and you see who your friends are in times of need. I want to express my deepest appreciation to the Romanian government and people for hosting this emergency transit centre," said Guterres, who also planted a "tree of wishes" in the centre.

Among those at the centre, was an 80-year-old Palestinian man from Iraq whose energy belied his age. He said he craved stability. "I want any citizenship, just so I can visit my sons and daughters, scattered all over the world," he said.

A young Sri Lankan woman said she was forced from her home during the long struggle that ended last year between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. She made her way to India, Singapore and Indonesia before being flown to Romania. "Even though I hadn't heard of Romania before, I really like it here. I feel really good," she said.

More than 600 refugees have transited the ETC in Timisoara since it opened in 2008, the same year that Romania passed legislation making it one of the few countries ready to accept refugees for resettlement. A first group of refugees from Myanmar is expected to arrive in the country from Malaysia in early June.

In Bucharest on Friday, the High Commisioner held talks with top officials, including Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc.

By Claudia Liute in Bucharest, Romania

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The High Commissioner

António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

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Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

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Since the overthrow in 2003 of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, Palestinian refugees in Baghdad have increasingly become the targets of arrest, kidnapping, threats and murder, prompting thousands to flee the capital.

There are still an estimated 15,000 Palestinians in Iraq – compared to more than double that number in 2003. They live in constant fear, many without proper documentation. For those who try to leave, the trip to Iraq's border with Syria and Jordan is increasingly dangerous. Hundreds are stuck at the Iraq-Syrian border, too scared to go back and unable to cross the frontier. Those who do manage to leave Iraq, often do so illegally.

International support is urgently needed to find a temporary humanitarian solution for the Palestinians. UNHCR has repeatedly appealed to the international community and countries in the region to offer refuge to the Palestinians. The refugee agency has also approached resettlement countries, but only Canada and Syria have responded positively. Syria has since closed its borders to other desperate Palestinians.

UNHCR also advocates for better protection of the Palestinian community inside Iraq.

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