Evaluation of Emergency Transit Centres in Romania and the Slovak Republic

from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 09 Jun 2016 View Original

Executive summary

  1. The Emergency Transit Centres were established to provide emergency protection and the possibility to evacuate refugees who could not be protected in their countries of asylum. Temporary relocation of refugees who required resettlement on an urgent or emergency basis to an Evacuation Transit Facility (ETF) was expected to serve five objectives, namely:
  • Provide timely and effective protection to an individual or group of individuals of concern to UNHCR;

  • Demonstrate a tangible form of burden‐ and responsibility‐sharing, enabling States not otherwise involved in emergency resettlement to accept cases from an ETF;

  • Enable officials from UNHCR and resettlement countries to undertake interviews in a stable, safe and secure environment;

  • Promote the subsequent realization of the durable solution of permanent resettlement; and - Encourage States hosting ETFs to become involved in resettlement.

  1. To date, three ETFs have become operational, namely the Emergency Transit Centres (ETCs) in Romania in 2008 and the Slovak Republic in 2011(although the Tri-Partite Agreement was signed in 2010), and the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) in the Philippines in 2009. The ETCs are managed on the basis of Tri-Partite Agreements signed by their hosting governments, UNHCR and IOM. The ETC in Timisoara, Romania, can accommodate a maximum of 200 refugees, whereas the one in Humenné, Slovak Republic, a total of 150 refugees (from mid-2012 onwards). As of 30 September 2015, 1,717 refugees had departed from the ETC in Timisoara, and 797 refugees from Humenné to resettlement countries. Since 2012, the main resettlement countries using the two centres are the USA, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada and Finland, with the USA the sole resettlement country using Humenné since 2013.

  2. At the request of UNHCRs Resettlement Service in the Division of International Protection UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service commissioned an evaluation of the ETCs in Romania and the Slovak Republic. As the ETCs have been in place for seven (Timisoara) and four years (Humenné) respectively, the evaluation presented UNHCR with an opportunity to assess whether the objectives set out at their establishment have been met. A comparative approach was used to assess the functioning of the two ETCs. The evaluation’s main findings should inform the development of strategies to meet emergency resettlement needs. Additionally, the results of the evaluation contribute to reflections on minimum standards and on whether the ETCs should continue with the same or similar objectives, or if there are other objectives that could lead to enhanced protection dividends for refugees.

  3. The evaluation team was composed of one PDES staff member and one external evaluation consultant.

  4. The ETCs in Timisoara, Romania, and in Humenné, Slovak Republic, have been relevant and appropriate for UNHCR, IOM, the ETC-hosting governments, resettlement countries and refugees. The ETCs offer a mechanism to UNHCR to provide a safe environment for refugees pending resettlement processing, including those classified under emergency or urgent priority, and to realize the durable solution of resettlement. While the number of refugees with emergency prioritization is small relative to the total number of refugees transferred to the centres, interlocutors described the ETCs as “life-saving” and “indispensable” for those few high-profile or high-risk refugees. This function for the most compelling protection cases is seen as core to UNHCR’s protection mandate.

  5. The centres also have an advocacy function. This is of pivotal importance to UNHCR and the hosting countries, as the agency must be seen to be able to respond immediately to lifethreatening situations to provide immediate protection. Although the overall contribution to global resettlement figures is small, the positive change brought about by the immediate safety and security (and access to basic services) and the overall realization of resettlement for hundreds of refugees has considerable value. In the evaluation period from the beginning of 2012 until 30 September, 2015 a total of 1,568 refugees were resettled through the two ETCs. The life-saving dimension in compelling protection cases is seen as vital even if there are very few emergency cases.

  6. Moreover, ETCs provided resettlement countries (and the IOM as part of its Resettlement Service Centre function for the US-government) access to refugees to undertake activities necessary to complete the resettlement process, including the selection of municipalities in resettlement countries. Some countries, in particular the US, are unable to process emergency cases due to long and complicated state procedures. The existence of the ETCs allows the US to process resettlement cases of persons who have been evacuated, and thereby increase accessibility of resettlement to some refugees, even if not on an emergency basis. The centre in Humenné has gradually expanded into one which solely caters to US-government processing, while only Timisoara has received emergency cases due to the shorter Romanian government clearance, and the absence of visa requirements. For the ETC-hosting governments, Romania and the Slovak Republic, the centres provided an opportunity to show their solidarity with countries hosting large refugee case-loads, while neither providing a permanent home to larger groups of refugees nor carrying all the operational costs of these centres.

  7. While the coverage of the ETCs is in principle global, only refugees of some nationalities and countries of first asylum have been accommodated in the centres. Ad hoc planning and the obstacles experienced by some resettlement countries in the process of adjudication or completion of resettlement procedures, including selecting municipalities, has generally driven the use of ETCs. Most of the refugees transferred to the ETCs were resettled to the USA or the UK.

  8. Male and female refugees of all age groups have been transferred to the ETCs, although some restrictions have been imposed with respect to refugees with high medical needs, including serious mental health needs due to limitations of the ETCs with respect to providing services to persons with high medical needs. There have also been challenges in providing accommodation to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) refugees. Since 2014, Iraqi refugees from Syria for resettlement to the USA are no longer transferred due to the refusal of already pre-vetted cases during the period 2012 - 2014. This has resulted in traumatic experiences for the concerned refugees, as three of them have remained in Timisoara since 2012 without a durable solution. Although alternative resettlement countries have been found for most of the rejected cases, this created an extra burden for UNHCR as well as delays for the concerned refugees.

  9. The efficiency of the ETC operations in Timisoara and Humenné was assessed from different angles, namely UNHCR and IP staffing, budgets, and utilization of capacity including the “pipeline”.

  10. The efficiency of the ETC operations in Timisoara and Humenné was assessed from different angles, namely UNHCR and IP staffing, budgets, and utilization of capacity including the “pipeline”.

  11. The centres are respectively under the supervision of the UNHCR Country Representative in Bucharest, and the UNHCR Deputy Regional Representative of the Regional Representative Office for Central Europe (RRCE) in Budapest. The resulting reporting lines and management of the budgets has led to limited coordination to ensure commonalities in approach in terms of staffing and assistance provided. Thus, in Timisoara, three UNHCR staff (with UNHCR or UNOPS contracts) work in the centre. In the Slovak Republic, the only UNHCR staff member manages the centre on a UNOPS contract. The difference in ETC-level staffing cannot be fully justified on the basis of their capacity. The above has also led to different budgets and variations in IP capacity, responsibilities and assistance, with the division of responsibilities between the different actors in Timisoara resulting in an overstretched IP with reduced capacity for counseling and other refugee-oriented activities.

  12. As the host countries’ contributions are different in each of the ETCs, the contribution of UNHCR also differs, the biggest difference being that UNHCR pays the food costs in Timisoara, which amounted to between 40-49% of total expenditures in the period 2012-2014. The overall expenditures for Timisoara, excluding food costs ranged from USD 621,700 in 2012, USD 654,900 in 2013 to USD 657,000 in 2014. If food costs are included, the annual costs are USD 1,031,000 in 2012, USD 1,278,100 in 2013, USD 1,195,800 in 2014 and USD 1,157,000 in 2015. The ETC requires 51% (2015) to 60% (2012, 2013) of the total budget for the Romania operation. The overall expenditure for Humenné was USD 406,700 in 2012, USD 747,800 in 2013, USD 979,900 in 2014, and USD 666,700 in 2015 (first 11 months).

  13. The underutilization of the ETCs was regularly raised as a concern by interlocutors. Their occupancy rate has historically been relatively low. The average daily occupancy rate for Timisoara is between one third to one half, and for Humenné approximately half of its capacity. Considering the nature of emergency case handling, and the flexibility this requires, the ETCs must always have space available to receive cases with serious protection needs. However, the planning documents for the ETCs do not allocate a specific number of spaces for emergency evacuations. In addition, the turnover of refugees has been slower than envisaged, with some refugees submitted to the US overstaying the maximum period of six months. The overwhelming majority of refugees stay an average of four to five months. Capacity has generally been viewed in terms of the available number of beds instead of in relation to site and shelter space available.

  14. Minimum standards for ETCs have not been developed. The application of minimum humanitarian standards in the areas of shelter confirms that the centres would not fully comply with these criteria if used to capacity. As the ETCs have become a semi-permanent response mechanism in the resettlement process, it is necessary to consider developing minimum standards for ETCs to guarantee the well-being of refugees. These standards should be based for example on the Sphere minimum humanitarian standards for shelter and non-food items.1 The standards should also take into account the objectives of preparing refugees for life in a resettlement country.

  15. The Romanian government has received funds from the EU to upgrade an existing facility to house the ETC. Work is expected to begin in 2016 so that refugees could be accommodated in 2017. It is imperative that UNHCR seize the opportunity to be involved at the planning stage of this process in order to ensure that the physical set-up is conducive to providing adequate assistance and protection, and to preparing refugees for resettlement. Some input into planning would also allow cost-savings if, for example, kitchens were included so that refugees could cook for themselves.

  16. The utilization of the ETCs has also been viewed in connection with the selection of refugees, and the process of obtaining clearances and organizing the transfer to one of the centres. The ETCs are directly linked to UNHCR’s global resettlement operation through the ETC focal point in the Resettlement Service, UNHCR headquarters. UNHCR Field Offices and Regional Resettlement Hubs are vital in identifying refugees for whom transfer to the ETC is an appropriate solution. Yet not all resettlement staff are aware of the existence of these facilities or know how to use these centres. This can be partially attributed to outdated guidance notes and a gap between vision and practice, which has led to different views on the usage of these centres.

  17. The underutilization of the ETCs is also a consequence of the use of emergency priority quota and/or a direct transfer to the resettlement country, which is the preferred option for all parties. Other obstacles include lengthy exit procedures of some countries of asylum, and a bureaucratic and lengthy process to organize the transfer of cases. Additionally, the part-time nature of the ETC focal point at headquarters does not encourage a more pro-active advocacy role.

  18. There are some differences in the provision of protection and assistance in the two ETCs. The major protection deficit noted by the evaluation team was the application of “limited freedom of movement” in Romania. Article 2 (2) of the Tri-Partite Agreement states that refugees “shall be required to reside in the ETC facility designated by the Romanian government.” This provision has been implemented in a manner that restricts freedom of movement of refugees as they are not permitted to leave the centre unless escorted by the implementing partner. This limitation is extremely frustrating for refugees and leads to a degree of institutionalization.

  19. While most of the refugees interviewed during the mission were satisfied with the standards of assistance offered, they felt that their lives in the ETC were on hold and many expressed a desire to have a “normal” life and to move on quickly from the ETC. Especially in Timisoara, concerns were expressed regarding the difficulties arising from living with many other refugees in a relatively small area, including sharing rooms with other families and/or individuals, the limited to no freedom of movement, few opportunities for leisure and language training for adults, and a general sense of boredom. This has produced a living environment in which stress and tensions between individuals can more easily build up. Overall, the services provided in Humenné were more comprehensive than in Timisoara. This was reflected in the level of satisfaction expressed by refugees during the focus group discussions.

  20. Resettlement is by definition a partnership activity. Cooperation with external stakeholders was generally viewed as efficient and effective by all respondents. Cooperation between UNHCR and the Government of Romania was regarded in a positive light, especially with respect to the limited time needed to process clearance requests, and the provision of identification documentation and security in the premises. However, the “limited freedom of movement” for refugees in the town, the lack of maintenance of the premises, and the regular provision of basic household items has led to some concern.

  21. Cooperation between UNHCR and the Government of the Slovak Republic was generally considered efficient and effective by all interlocutors, despite some challenges in obtaining visas from embassies in countries of asylum or neighboring countries. The third partner to the agreements, IOM, has taken effective care of travel logistics, medical assessments and cultural orientation training. Possible challenges were ironed out in the beginning of these local partnerships. Some communication challenges were however noted at the field level in countries of asylum between UNHCR and IOM (and some ICRC delegations) due to staff turnover.

  22. A similar positive note can be recorded with regard to the cooperation between UNHCR and the nine resettlement countries that used the ETCs in the 2012-2015 period. However, concern was expressed about referring an adequate number of refugees for the US “pipeline” on the one hand, and the US speed of processing, both during the pre-vetting stage and the stay of refugees in the ETCs, on the other hand. The first issue was resolved in 2015 with stronger coordination taking place between the three partners: UNHCR, the US and IOM.

  23. The two ETCs have been effective to some degree considering the initial objectives established especially considering that a transfer can only be approved if a resettlement country is already identified. Only the centre in Timisoara was used for emergency priority cases in 2013 and 2014. An overall reduction of this function is visible during the period 2012-2015. However, for refugees classified under normal priority, the transfer to an ETC was still viewed as life-saving if evacuated from an unsafe situation.

  24. The majority of refugees were transferred to the ETCs to support either the processing of resettlement cases by means of interviews, biometrics or to find municipalities in the resettlement country. Providing opportunities for recovery and preparing for the integration process has only been achieved to some degree, depending on the situation in countries of asylum and the protection and assistance provided in the two centres. The centres have however supported the objective “potential for resettlement realized”. The overwhelming majority of refugees arriving in the ETCs actually departed for resettlement. The ETCs have therefore contributed to facilitating the resettlement process of some refugees that otherwise could not have been resettled.

  25. The main impact of the ETCs has been the provision of immediate and effective protection to refugees. Moreover, as a tangible form of responsibility-sharing, the centres have given Romania and the Slovak Republic the opportunity to present their contribution to the international protection regime in international fora. Romania established a resettlement programme with a quota of 40 refugees per year, with the first group of 38 refugees arriving in 2010, and the second group in 2014. The Slovak Republic also pledged, on a voluntary basis, 100 resettlement places in the period 2015-2017 towards the Council of the European Conclusions on Resettlement of 20 July 2015. However, arrivals under this programme are still pending.

  26. Given the current situation in Europe it could be argued that more responsibility-sharing could be expected, and the existence of the ETCs should not absolve these governments of the obligation to provide durable solutions to a greater number of refugees. The host governments might also be persuaded to contribute more resources to the running of the ETCs.

  27. The ETCs have contributed modestly to global resettlement figures and to reducing protracted refugee case-loads in countries of first asylum. But they have provided a safe alternative for cases that could not be transferred directly to resettlement countries, thereby offering the only available durable solution to these refugees. For some refugees, without the ETCs, there would simply be no possibility of resettlement.

  28. In conclusion, the evolution in the operation of the ETCs shows a move away from their original vision. In the words of one interlocutor “there is nothing emergency about this process.” This has resulted in a situation whereby the policies and practices of resettlement countries to a large extent actually determine the use of the ETCs. Internal factors further impact upon the efficiency and effectiveness of the centres. Thus, replacing the first word of the acronym “ETC” with resettlement (“Resettlement Transit Centres”) would actually give a clearer indication of the main purpose of these centres, namely to support the realization of this durable solution. This could then also cover possible shifts or changes in their functions as RTCs continue to respond to the needs of different stakeholders. The sustainability of these centres must also be viewed in relation to UNHCR’s responsibility to manage the “pipeline” in cooperation with resettlement states.

  29. The key recommendations of this evaluation are directed to DIP’s Resettlement Service, the RRCE and CO Romania.