Romania is not part of Europe’s borderless Schengen area, but it is eager to join it and is showing goodwill in securing Europe’s outer border.
There was no 'yacht', there was just a dilapidated boat, with no food, and instead of ten hours it took us 48 hours
For coastguard Ciprian Popa, this means patrolling the Black Sea, where Romania is facing a new phenomenon: small boats filled with refugees are crossing over from Turkey, heading towards Western Europe.
For now, the numbers of these undocumented migrants are small, much smaller than in the Mediterranean. But they’re growing.
For these Black Sea refugees, Romania has become a gateway to Europe, and to dreams of a life far from the war or poverty crippling their countries. Many risk their lives to reach the continent.
One recent night, a storm broke out, the sea was rough, and Popa and his team spotted a small boat adrift, tossed around by the waves.
Popa and his men rescued 70 people from the tiny vessel. Most of the passengers were fleeing the war in Syria.
Among them was Huner, a baby girl born in Turkey just five months earlier in a camp for Syrian refugees. Her name means “art” in Kurdish: her father Ali Kawa, 27, dreams that someday she will be a musician.
When militants from the group calling itself Islamic State (ISIL)attacked the northern Syrian town of Kobani last year, Ali and his then-pregnant wife fled. He paid 6,000 euros to have them smuggled from Syria to Europe – from war to peace.
Ali saw friends wounded and killed in the war raging at the border between Syria and Turkey. In no time, his home was destroyed and his life in Syria went to ruin, he told Euronews, struggling to hold back tears.
Illegal migrants and their smugglers are being hunted down with help from the Romanian border surveillance centre in the port city Constanta.
“No one can enter the EU territory undetected because we have very good and efficient equipment – with it we can even detect vessels of less than 20 meters from a distance of 12 nautical miles,” said coastguard officer Madalina Zamfir.
The coastguard could be dealing with many more illegal migrants in a few years’ time, if Romania finally joins the Schengen area.
The Schengen agreement, which was signed 30 years ago, has gradually scrapped border controls between European member states. On the other hand, controls at Europe’s outer borders have been strengthened.
While Ireland and the UK have chosen to stay out of the Schengen area, Cyprus, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania are eager to join it, but have to wait.
Other EU members say these countries need to further reform their justice systems and crack down on corruption and organized crime.
Dreams, lies and go-betweens
Further up the Danube, in the city of Galati, the families rescued by Popa and his men have found shelter in an EU-financed centre for asylum seekers.
A Syrian refugee, who asked not to be identified, said he had fled Aleppo, where he worked as a hairdresser. His children are still in Syria and he wants to get them out of there quickly. But he fears smugglers will lie to them just like they did with him.
“The Turkish smugglers sent me pictures, on my mobile phone, of what the boat would look like: 5-stars. And they told me that the trip across the Black Sea – from Turkey to Romania – would only take ten hours,” he said.
“But there was no “yacht”, there was just a dilapidated boat, with no food, and instead of ten hours it took us 48 hours.”
Halfway through the trip to Romania, in the middle of the stormy Black Sea, the smugglers started giving out orders to the refugees, he said.
“No more phones! No more smoking! Nothing! The atmosphere got really really tense and threatening. And then came the huge waves,” he recalled.
Civilians caught in the conflict in northern Syria have become easy preys for smugglers, who charge them a fortune to get to Europe.
The hairdresser from Aleppo said he had struck a deal with his smugglers, based in Istanbul: they will be paid 9,500 euros to get him from Turkey to Germany, with help from criminal gangs in Romania along the way.
“To make sure that I arrive in Germany, the money is deposited in the hands of a go-between. Once I arrive in Germany, I have to call him on the phone and he hands over the money to a third person,” he explained.
Given he is currently in Romania and has not reached Germany, he has not yet paid his smugglers in full. But he said he and fellow refugees were under serious pressure to get moving and reach their planned destination.
“They are phoning us, ordering us to run away and promising to smuggle us further on, to Germany,” he said.
Just one in four beds at the Galati centre is occupied. Most refugees don’t want to stay in Romania. They plan to keep heading towards Western Europe.
Political chess game
At the headquarters of the Romanian border police in Bucharest, officers work with sophisticated equipment made by German-French company EADS.
The contract was handed out years ago – without a public tender. There have since been allegations that the Germans bribed Romanian officials to secure the contract.
The public prosecutor’s office in Munich told euronews the investigation is ongoing.
While the European Commission says that on a technical level Romania is ready to join Schengen, several EU countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands have opposed its application.
The Romanian border police is frustrated with these political hurdles.
“We are doing a good job out there at the border,” said Liviu-Marius Galos, Deputy General Inspector of the Romanian border police.
“And a lot of money has been invested to secure the EU’s external borders: European and Romanian taxpayers’ money,” he noted.
Romanian judges are also leading a fierce battle against corruption, to convince everyone around the European political chessboard that Romania is changing and should join the Schengen area.
But some refugees at the Galati centre say they won’t to wait for that to happen before they try again to reach Western Europe.
Ali already plans to move on. He wants to take his family to Austria – to give his baby a brighter future.
The young man fled with his wife and baby the war raging in northern Syria. Together with 70 refugees, he crossed Turkey and the Black Sea. euronews reporter Hans von der Brelie met him in Galati in Romania, a few days after his boat was intercepted by the Romanian coastguard. To listen to the full interview (English language), please use this link.