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Romania: Visa-Free Travel Benefits Muted By Strict Criteria, Poverty

Romania in January was the last of the 12 European Union candidates to see its visa restrictions dropped by the Schengen agreement member-states. Despite initial suspicions that lifting the visa regime for one of the largest and poorest candidate countries could trigger a wave of Romanian migrants to Western Europe, half a year later the number of Romanians traveling to the West has dropped. Romanian officials say the reduction is a result of stricter border controls and better cooperation with Western authorities. But the main reason behind the drop may be that as poverty grows, fewer Romanians can afford to travel.

Prague, 25 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Six months after visa restrictions were lifted on Romanians looking to travel to the West, fewer Romanians are enjoying the privilege than initially expected.

Romania, in January, was the last of the 12 European Union candidate countries to have travel restrictions lifted for the 15 states that are members of the Schengen agreement -- that is, all EU states except Ireland and the United Kingdom, plus non-EU members Norway and Iceland.

To persuade the EU justice and interior ministers to lift visa requirements, Romania -- which had been long seen as a main gateway for illegal migration to the West -- had to harmonize its legislation with the European Union, strengthen border and passport security and sign re-admission treaties with EU states.

But Romania, southeastern Europe's largest country with a population of some 22 million, also imposed a set of strict measures for its citizens who want to travel to Schengen states.

To leave the country, Romanians must prove that they have valid credit cards or funds of up to almost $100 per each day of their trip, while for trips longer than five days a total of almost $500 is necessary. Medical insurance, a return ticket to travel by plane or train, or international car insurance for the duration of the trip are also compulsory.

Romanian Deputy Interior Minister Alexandru Farcas told RFE/RL more than half a million Romanians traveled to the Schengen states this year.

But Farcas says over 100,000 Romanians were prevented from crossing the border -- which he says is proof that Romanian authorities mean business:

"More than 500,000 Romanians traveled to the Schengen states in the first five months of this year, out of a total of more than 2 million Romanians who crossed the border [this year]. Based on the legislation passed last year, border controls are now very rigorous, and between January and May, more than 130,000 Romanians were prevented from crossing the border out of Romania because they did not meet the conditions."

However, the overall number of Romanians who crossed the border over the past five months was 17 percent lower than during the same period last year.

Critics say increasing poverty is the main reason for the drop. In a country where the average monthly income has been hovering for years around $100 a month -- while inflation is as high as 30 percent annually -- fewer people appear able to fulfill the norms necessary to travel.

But Farcas says that despite harsh economic conditions, Romanian authorities, in cooperation with EU police forces, managed to keep strict control on cross-border traveling, allaying fears of mass-migration from Romania:

"Mostly during the first months of this year, there were many reactions of surprise, not so much from Western officials, but from the Western public, who in some countries had been afraid of a wave, a tsunami [seismic wave] of Romanian migrants, but this thing did not happen. Now, compared to past years, we are able to have connections and data exchanges in real time with interior ministries and border polices from the EU states, so we can speak of much more efficient work than before."

Romania's progress is visible compared to last year's situation, when not only EU states had difficulties with Romanian illegal migrants, but also the Czech Republic, which is not an EU member. Faced with a growing number of asylum seekers from Romania -- mostly ethnic Roma -- Czech authorities threatened to impose visas for Romanians.

Prague subsequently renounced its intention after Bucharest cracked down on groups which facilitated illegal migration and imposed more severe border controls.

However, another country -- this time EU member Finland -- was confronted this year with a growing number of ethnic Roma asylum seekers from Romania.

Deputy Interior Minister Farcas told RFE/RL:

"In Finland, over several weeks, the authorities received hundreds of asylum applications, which came as a surprise. Finnish colleagues told us that during the 1990s, only 37 asylum applications had been submitted in Finland by Romanian citizens."

But Farcas says most of the applicants had left Romania years ago, submitting successive asylum applications in several EU countries, and ending up in Finland after other states rejected their applications.

He says Finland is in the process of returning a first group of 80 Romanians whose asylum applications were rejected and who will be banned from the Schengen states for five years.

For years, Romania has also been a springboard for illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe -- mainly Moldova and Ukraine -- and Asia who are trying to reach Western Europe.

Border officials say they managed to improve security at Romania's eastern borders. Last week, the government announced it will spend almost $50 million to further secure its border with Moldova.

Farcas told RFE/RL that illegal migrants have begun avoiding Romania lately:

"Over the past six months we noticed a reduction in migration attempts across Romania's eastern border, which is the result of the message we sent: we dismantled several guide networks and organizations which were smuggling people from the east to the west through Romania. On the contrary, lately we noticed that the Balkan route has become more active."

EU officials also say that cooperation between Romanian border authorities and their western counterparts has improved over the past several months.

Leonello Gabrici, the spokesman for the European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Antonio Vitorino, told RFE/RL:

"It's a very good relation and, as you know, it's one very important element of the bilateral dialogue we are pursuing at present and we keep on insisting to have this relation improving always in the near future, as we do with all Eastern European countries in general."

Deputy Interior Minister Alexandru Farcas says Romanian border police are increasingly receiving training and technical support from EU states

He says this will allow Bucharest to replace conscripts with professional border police staff at all border crossings by October.

Meanwhile, more than half a million passports have been replaced since January with new travel documents that are more difficult to forge.

But, at almost $30 apiece, the new, more secure passports are an expensive item. And for many Romanians, spending one-third of the average monthly income on a passport could prove an unaffordable luxury.