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Romania: Do New Measures To Stop Illegal Migration Go Too Far?

The Romanian government last week announced a set of emergency measures to curb illegal emigration, after Czech authorities said they would introduce visa requirements for Romanians later this year due to a sharp increase in Romanian asylum seekers in the Czech Republic. But the measures -- which could include jail terms of up to 10 years for Romanians who commit crimes abroad and the confiscation of their passports for up to five years -- are regarded by some as possible infringements on human rights.

Prague, 5 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Romania's government last week announced emergency measures that would outline conditions Romanian nationals will have to meet in order to be allowed to travel abroad.

The measures -- to be enforced beginning 1 January -- were approved in order to curb illegal emigration and were announced immediately after the Czech government decided on 29 August to temporarily introduce visa requirements for Romanians starting 1 October.

The Czech authorities say their decision was prompted by a sharp increase in the number of Romanian asylum seekers in the Czech Republic last year and in the first half of this year. The Czech Interior Ministry says the number of asylum seekers from Romania -- which was just above 500 last year -- grew at a monthly rate of 30 to 40 percent in the first half of this year.

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase says he hopes the Czech decision will not have to be enforced if EU justice and interior ministers later this month (27 September) decide to lift visa restrictions for Romanians traveling to European Union countries.

According to the new Romanian measures, nationals who want to travel abroad will be required to produce proof of medical and -- in some cases -- car insurance, a return ticket, and a minimum sum of hard currency, or valid credit cards -- enough to cover expenses abroad for at least five days.

The measures also include punishments of up to 10 years in prison for Romanians who commit crimes while abroad and the possible confiscation of the offender's passport for up to five years.

Nastase also instructed the Interior and Tourism Ministry to begin an investigation into Romanian tourism agencies suspected of organizing the smuggling of people into the Czech Republic.

According to media reports, many Romanian citizens -- most of them members of the Romany minority -- take organized trips to the Czech Republic, where they ask for asylum on the grounds of being subjected to persecution at home.

Romania's consul to the Czech Republic, Marian Radu, says that many bogus asylum seekers are trying to take advantage of the Czech asylum law, which grants them at least three months' legal stay in the country at the expense of the Czech government. Radu told RFE/RL that he is aware of unofficial reports that the asylum seekers are well-organized and have good knowledge of the Czech law -- as happened earlier this year near Ostrava in Moravia:

"This reportedly happened in April, in Ostrava, at the reception center [for asylum seekers] in Frydek Mistek, when four or five buses with almost 250 Roma [with Romanian passports] on board came to the center directly from the border, which they had crossed as tourists. Their leaders knew the Czech [asylum] law very well and discussed with Czech officials from a strong position: 'We demand this and this and this.'"

Radu says a large majority of Romanian asylum seekers are abusing the Czech law in order to obtain temporary residence in the Czech Republic until their applications are processed. Once they submit an application, Radu says, they leave the camps at will, engaging in petty crime, such as theft and pickpocketing.

Radu also says that after the massive group of asylum seekers was accommodated in the Frydek Mistek camp, Romania's Consulate began receiving complaints from Ostrava police about Romanian citizens who had allegedly committed crimes in the region.

Radu says the sharp increase in asylum seekers from Romania occurred after the Czech Republic approved a permissive new asylum law in 1999. He told our correspondent that -- although he cannot offer advice to Czech authorities -- he thinks, based on his experience, that a review of the law would improve the situation:

"I am not in a position to offer suggestions or advice to Czech authorities. But as a mere observer, I think it would be, first of all, in the interest of the Czech Republic to review the asylum law, based on the experience of the last 18 months, because it is obvious that what is happening is a consequence of this law."

Romanian authorities still hope the Czech government -- once it is properly informed of the latest measures taken by Bucharest -- will not enforce a decision to introduce visas next month.

Romania's Interior Ministry announced that bilateral talks are scheduled for today or tomorrow, while Consul Radu also told RFE/RL that a Romanian liaison officer will take up a position at the Prague embassy on 15 September.

But the new restrictive measures announced by Bucharest in order to quell illegal migration and crimes committed by Romanians abroad have also triggered warnings that they may amount to a violation of the universal right to free movement and could cause economic discrimination.

Professor Zoe Petre is a political analyst and was a top adviser to former Romanian President Emil Constantinescu. She told RFE/RL that the new measures may cross the line:

"It is a delicate problem of correlation with international norms. Especially regarding the suspension of the right to travel -- the refusal to issue a passport. I think there is the risk of entering a continuing spiral which could lead to challenges on the basis of human rights [violations]."

Petre says the former center-right government that led Romania between 1996-2000 also proposed similar measures after complaints from the Czech Republic, but decided to drop them when it was accused by Romanian media of trying to violate human rights.

Petre also points out that the new provisions will enable border police to send Romanian tourists back if they deem it appropriate. She says such rules, if not clearly stated, could lead to increased corruption and abuses among border guards:

"No matter how clear these rules may be -- and I do not have the experience of the wording of laws being very clear in Romania -- there is the possibility of abuses of power in these situations."

Petre also says that even if the European Commission decides to lift visa requirements for Romanians, economic hurdles will persist for those who want to travel abroad. Petre points out that, even now, it is the honest and hard-working individuals who suffer most because of the visa system.

For a criminal, she concludes, it will be much easier to produce $500 in cash at the border crossing than it will be for a professor or a student who just wants to see Naples once in his or her life.