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European Refugees Meet Austerity-Era Hostility

WARSAW , Apr 24 2012 (IPS) - As the economic slump drags on in Europe, refugees and immigrants are keeping a wary eye on state budgets, as governments in the throes of austerity slash the social protections and public services that minorities rely on.

The question now on the table is whether refugees and migrants will suffer disproportionate hardships as a result of plummeting government spending.

Central and Eastern Europe, a relatively new destination for migrants, have given off an illusion of ‘stability’ in an otherwise chaotic economic period, mainly because “things were already quite bad to begin with” rights activists in the region say.

“In times of economic crisis, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are often treated with suspicion by national governments and the mass media,” explained Philip Amaral, policy and communications officer at the Jesuit Refugee Service. “The Greek government, for example, has recently implemented large- scale (reforms) in order to apprehend ‘irregular’ migrants.”

Greek government officials have cast a very negative light on immigration, citing the country’s economic troubles as a reason to seal its borders.

“Furthermore, the government has announced its intention to build 30 new detention centres, and a law is in the works that would increase detention time limits for certain categories of migrants,” Amaral told IPS. “Moreover, they aim to build a razor wire border fence with Turkey”, since the border regions along the Evros river have become a major entry point for immigration into the European Union.

“While Greece may be an extreme case, we hope other EU governments choose not to implement similar policies and scapegoat migrants in similar ways,” he added.

Central and Eastern Europe’s primary recipient of immigrants is Poland, where asylum applications peaked in 2009 at around 10,500 and have decreased to 6,500 in 2010, according to data compiled by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

All other countries in Central and Eastern Europe receive a maximum of 1,000 asylum claims per year, except Hungary, which received 2,104 petitions in 2010.

The disproportionately large influx into Poland can be explained primarily by its easily accessible location for immigrants streaming out of the former Soviet Republics. Chechens, for example, account for the largest number of people seeking protection in this country.

Several Polish migrants’ rights groups told IPS that in a country where the economic crisis has taken a lighter toll than elsewhere, the systemic problems facing immigrants and refugees are clearly on display.

A pilot study published last year by the Polish Institute of Public Affairs concludes that “the number of refugees experiencing homelessness in Poland is between 1,400 and 2,120 persons,” representing about a third of the refugees in the country.

According to Katarzyna Oyrzanowska, an integration assistant at the Warsaw UNHCR office, this is primarily due to limited access to public housing in Poland, coupled with landlords’ reluctance to rent to refugees. In fact, most refugees are either denied housing outright, or given higher rent prices, to deter them from pursuing a rented home.

The UNHCR is now advocating that social housing for refugees be increased and that all municipalities in Poland offer at least as many social houses as Warsaw, which currently reserves five apartments, capable of housing one family, for refugees per year.

Polish authorities also dedicated the first six months of 2012 to ‘regularisation’ of illegal migrants, the third such attempt by Warsaw over the last several years. Unlike the previous two efforts, conditions for regularising one’s immigration status are considered relatively easy, and over 3,000 people applied for legal status in the first two months of the programme.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the economic crisis hit right when national and local authorities were learning how to deal with the influx of migrants, which delayed officials’ ability to deal swiftly and competantly with immigrants rights.

In Romania, where the impact of the economic crisis was severe, non-governmental organisations protecting migrants and refugees are now finally able to make use of EU resources, such as the European Refugee Fund, said UNHCR’s Cristina Popa.

Still, Polish NGOs providing legal assistance to asylum seekers are experiencing problems accessing money from the Fund in a timely manner, which is seriously hindering their work, according to Ewa Ostaszewska, a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

Rights groups’ mixed record in accessing funds from either local or international donors reflects migrants’ experiences with securing protection and integration.

In its most recent survey of the plight of refugees in the region, the U.N. refugee agency paints a far from optimistic picture. For example, refugees’ access to language courses is often difficult as classes take place during working hours; there are also huge disparities between the quality and frequency of language classes for refugees, not just across but also within countries.

Refugees in countries that are experiencing extreme budget cuts will likely experience a worsening of the situation in the coming months.

Popa said that since 2009, Romania has cut its budget for social assistance, education and public health and reduced state salaries and pensions, which disproportionately affects vulnerable groups like refugees.

Romanian citizens are affected too but, as Popa pointed out, people who enter the country with nothing but the clothes on their backs and 25 kilogrammes of luggage cannot be compared to someone with lawful status, a nationally recognised education, and a support network.

So while the economic crisis sweeping across Europe is leaving in its wake a ‘new poor’ – a whole class of Europeans that had hitherto enjoyed certain privileges but who now find themselves victims of savage budget cuts and mass unemployment – it is possible that the biggest losers will be the refugees and immigrants who are perpetually in the no man’s land of the global economic war.

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