Dear Friends, In October last year the organizers of the ROM (Renewing Our Minds) Integration Forum released the Croatian edition of the Memorandum on the ROM Integration Forum, with conclusions and recommendations for Croatian government and non-government organizations and institutions, as well as for EU and international organizations that could benefit from the findings of this document.
Today we are honored to share with you the English edition of the Memorandum. Although the focus of the document is on Croatia we are aware that many of the findings also reflect similar, often identical experiences around Europe, and as such our recommendations, especially around the questions of integration, can be adapted to suit many national and international contexts.
In September 2018 a unique integration conference took place in Fuzine, Croatia. The event brought together 54 asylum seekers, lecturers, workshop facilitators, counselors, mentors, humanitarian activists, and religious and political leaders under the banner of “ROM Integration Forum: Moving Forward in Truth, with Courage and Hope.” The conference was attended by participants from 14 countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran.
This document comes as the result of a promise given by the organizers to the participants, especially the asylum seekers attending the conference, that we would make the findings of the conference available nationally and internationally as a tool by which we would like to raise public awareness about the plight of the refugees who are seeking international protection in Croatia and Europe. Our desire is to help contribute to the making of a healthy and constructive climate that would be supportive of a more dignifying treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Croatia, Europe and elsewhere..
Thank you for giving us your attention at this time. Sincerely, Tihomir Kukolja, ROM – Renewing Our Minds Director
Conclusions and recommendations for Croatian government institutions and organizations, religious communities, charities, and civic initiatives in the Republic of Croatia; as well as for EU and other international government and non-government organizations that could benefit from the findings of this document.
From Wednesday, September 19thuntil Monday, September 24th, 2018 a unique five-day integration conference took place in Fuzine, Croatia. The event brought together 54 asylum seekers, lecturers, workshop facilitators, counselors, mentors, humanitarian activists, and religious and political leaders under the banner of “ROM Integration Forum: Moving Forward in Truth, with Courage and Hope.”
The conference was attended by participants from 14 countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. The conference was organized by the Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation, an international nongovernmental organization based in Seattle, USA, and Work as Calling, a Croatian nongovernmental organization based in Zagreb, as well as the European Christian Political Movement (ECPM), based in Brussels, Belgium. The conference was a project that grew out of Renewing Our Minds (ROM) a project that has been held in Fuzine, Croatia every summer since 1999. The conference sessions were conducted in English, with translation into Farsi and Arabic.
The goals of the Integration Forum
The goals of the integration forum (hereafter referred to as the ROM Forum) were to assist international asylum seekers in Croatia, as well as some who have been recently granted asylum in Croatia (hereafter referred to as asylees)and are planning their new life in Croatia. The forum sought to assist them in gaining a balanced understanding of the integration process in the Republic of Croatia and the European Union. Conference organizers wished to communicate openly with asylum seekers about the challenges they face during the lengthy, uncertain, and draining process of awaiting a final decision from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) regarding their status in the Republic of Croatia.
The conference organizers wanted to offer a platform for the voices of asylum seekers and asylees in Croatia. As well as for the Croatian government, non-governmental, religious organizations, institutions and European organizations that offer various social, psychological, humanitarian, and spiritual assistance to asylum seekers and asylees in Croatia. A high-quality range of lectures and workshops, and small and large group discussions helped achieve these goals. The topics were approached with the goal of acquainting the asylum seekers and asylees with Croatian and European legislation and analysis of the cultural and religious milieu of Croatia and the European Union.
Conference participants included both Christian and Muslim asylum seekers and asylees, and their interactions were warm and mutually respectful. It is also worth noting that a majority of the participants (24 people) were asylum seekers still living in the Porin refugee center in Zagreb, and seven participants have already been granted asylum in Croatia. A few asylum seekers and asylees were also included in the team that organized and ran the conference.
Challenges faced by asylum seekers in Croatia
The organizers of the ROM Forum ensured that there would be enough time for participants’ questions, and for discussion sparked by their questions. Although the conference was marked by a warm tone and grew daily in mutual acceptance, understanding, and unity, it was also marked by intense and challenging discussions. The afternoon discussions repeatedly touched on a handful of relevant, painful, and previously suppressed questions that brought to the surface the challenges that asylum seekers face daily.
Multiple conversations with conference participants communicated the following:
A large number of asylum seekers have spent two, or even three years living in Porin, a center for asylum seekers in Zagreb, where they, along with their families, are in a state of long-term uncertainty while they await a decision from the Croatian MIA regarding their request for residence in Croatia. All of them are seeking asylum based on threats to their lives due to war, or because of political or religious persecution. A few participants have received two or three negative responses, and a fourth negative response would be final, forcing them to leave Croatia no more than one month after the decision. Invitations to interviews with MIA representatives are rare, and six to nine months can pass in between interviews. In the meanwhile, the asylum seekers live in a state of radio silence, unsure of the result of their request, unable to find employment during their first nine months in Croatia, with insufficient healthcare, and with no legal means of receiving financial assistance from family and friends living outside of Croatia. They wait for months or years in Porin, and are expected to live off the 100 Croatian Kuna (US$15 or 13.5 Euros) a month per person from the government, which is insufficient to cover even the most basic necessities.
This uncertainty leaves most of these asylum seekers in a state of emotional and psychological exhaustion, deeper feelings of insecurity, irritability, helplessness, and apathy, demonstrated by a lack of desire to get involved in activities such as language study and volunteering, and a lack of belief in the possibility of a positive outcome. A significant number of asylum seekers in Croatia gradually lose faith in the Croatian government and social institutions, because they believe that the challenges, they face during their long-term wait, are the result of a deliberate attempt by the Croatian government to discourage them and force them to give up and leave Croatia of their own will.
Challenges faced by asylees in Croatia
A majority of those who receive asylum in Croatia are faced with a new set of challenges upon receiving a positive response from the MIA. The funds that they receive during the first two years after the decision are intended to cover their basic needs and living expenses. They are expected to get on their feet during these first two years, including finding accommodation, learning the Croatian language, and finding a job.
Because a majority of asylum asylees are just beginning to learn Croatian, finding accommodation is automatically more difficult. The fact that they are “refugees” and unable to communicate closes many doors of potential landlords from the beginning. And while the Croatian government is willing to pay their rent for the first two years, a majority of Croatian landlords ask for payment in cash in order to avoid paying tax, which limits their options, making it more difficult for Croatian asylum asylees to find an apartment. It is common for them to be forced to remain in Porin for weeks or even months after receiving asylum before they are able to move into their first apartment.
Asylees in Croatia are also easy targets for labor exploiters, who offer them quick earnings by giving them the most difficult and thankless jobs, only to later threaten or blackmail them with diminished or no wages. Despite the fact that these asylees enjoy almost all the same rights as Croatian citizens, they can easily find themselves in situations of long-term enslavement or exploitation.
New asylees are most discouraged by the inefficiency of state institutions and systems. They testify that even in cases where the laws are in their favor, application of the laws is inefficient or even nonexistent, especially in the case of their right to education, medical care, and assistance in finding employment in keeping with their qualifications.
The most frequent questions asked by participants of the ROM Forum clearly demonstrate the traumatized condition of many of the asylum seekers and asylees: “Why is the process of awaiting a final decision by Croatian authorities so slow and filled with uncertainty? Why are the conditions the asylum seekers live in for months and years of waiting so inadequate? Why is it that some asylum seekers, who submitted their requests for asylum only recently received a quick response, while others who have been in Croatia for two or three years are still waiting? Why are only some asylum seekers able to find legal work after waiting the prescribed nine months, while most are denied this right? Why is it that services which are guaranteed by law are ineffective, for instance the right to organized study of the Croatian language and healthcare? Why does the Croatian MIA not assist in reuniting family members who have been separated during their refugee journey and now reside in different countries? Why do religious and humanitarian organizations not coordinate more efficiently in offering psychological and social help to asylum seekers and asylees?
Our desire is that through this memorandum we help the voices of asylum seekers and asylees in Croatia be heard, and we also wish to offer the conclusions of the organizers of the recent ROM Forum. We recognize that the path to successful integration is a two-way streetand that responsibility to integrate is matched with the support to do so. Therefore, we want to share the conclusions of this memorandum and the following recommendations with Croatian government institutions, including the MIA of the Republic of Croatia, as well as with religious organizations, and finally with asylum seekers and asylees in the Republic of Croatia. Also, we want to share this document with EU and other international government and non-government organizations that could benefit from the findings of this document.
Recommendations for the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Croatia, and Croatian government institutions and organizations:
Newly arrived asylum seekers, who came to Croatia from neighboring countries, should be allowed to register at the nearest MIA representative in Croatia, and request asylum in Croatia without fear that they will be forcibly returned to the neighboring country from which they came.Representatives of the Croatian MIA must carefully follow Croatian law and binding declarations and conventions of the United Nations and the European Union on the rights of refugees and migrants, which state that they cannot be returned to neighboring countries (straight away without due process) after they have expressed a desire to seek asylum in Croatia, but should be provided a legally guaranteed procedure. The conditions under which refugees, whether or not they have possession of their personal documents, may enter Croatia, and, under the protection of the law, seek international asylum should be clearly and publicly explained, and the explanation should be made easily accessible.
The process of making decisions about asylum should be speeded up in order to reduce the wait time. Early decision-making for all will facilitate integration, and resources must be available to process all cases quickly, accurately and efficiently. Those who’ve been waiting longest must have immediate and speedy decisions, and credit should be given in the questioning and evaluation process to candidates who are making visible efforts to successfully integrate into Croatian society. To evaluate this, those conducting the evaluations should seek the input of mentors, Croatian language instructors, leaders of volunteer or sports organizations, employers, clergy or leaders of religious organizations, and other professionals whom the candidate has a regular working or mentor relationship with. It is necessary to create a model of integration with a detailed plan of integration for asylees which can be easily followed. New asylees in Croatia should be allowed access to mentors and counselors who can help them take the first steps towards integration in Croatia.
The Croatian government should work on finding and reuniting families of asylum seekers, whose members have, through various circumstances, been separated during their journey toward or across Europe. Inefficient practices on the ground should be brought into line with Croatian law, which guarantees various forms of support for asylum seekers, and in situations where asylum seekers are unable to receive residence in Croatia, they should be pointed to other means of gaining Croatian residence, such as for humanitarian reasons. While waiting, asylum seekers should be given the right to basic protection of their human dignity, including their right to healthcare, right to work, right to basic income even before nine months have passed, and a right to free Croatian language classes.
In order to achieve a high-quality integration process, asylum seekers should be encouraged to study the Croatian language, which could be achieved by making their receipt of social aid and protection conditional on their study of the Croatian language, and making their language study an additional factor in making a decision about their status in the Republic of Croatia. Also, the required amount of language study should be increased to 160 hours. (Assistance and help maybe required in order for seekers to gain access to these classes) Asylum seekers should be given temporary documents issued by the Republic of Croatia as a legitimate proof of identity for use in monetary transactions. It is imperative to protect the dignity, integrity, and security of asylum seekers and asylees residing in Croatia as much as possible, especially in public communication. There has been a recent trend of dehumanizing refugees and asylum seekers in the media, which can easily lead to the radicalization of segments of society with nationalistic and racist proclivities. Therefore, it is also important to protect the dignity, integrity, and security of nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations and citizen initiatives which are making an effort to help asylum seekers and asylees in their successful integration into Croatian society.
It is important to develop access to evaluation and verification of accrued knowledge, degrees, and competence, which would allow asylum seekers who do not have access to their original diplomas and certifications to more easily continue to grow their education and professional skills and titles and find corresponding work. It is important to protect the dignity of asylum seekers who are seeking protection due to religious persecution, threats, or abuse they faced in their countries of origin. This is especially true in cases where the asylum seekers are Christians or recent converts to Christianity. In order to achieve this, it is important that: 1) the investigators questioning the asylum seekers, and those making the final decisions be aware of the differences and nuances of the religious experience of the asylum seekers, and have an understanding of various religious movements (for instance, Roman Catholics and Protestants do not share identical beliefs even though both belong to the Christian faith); 2) candidates have access to non-ideological translators (there have been accusations that some Arabic and Farsi translators purposeful mistranslate the words of Christians); and 3) asylum seekers be allowed access to a spiritual mentor during their interviews, who can help explain the faith of the interviewee to MIA employees (who can step in and provide clarity if, for instance, a Protestant from Iran is asked questions about the Roman Catholic faith tradition in an effort to confirm the legitimacy of their Christian faith).
Recommendations to religious, church, and nongovernmental organizations
Religious communities should be ready to offer religious teaching and pastoral care and open their doors to spiritual integration into the church community for asylum seekers who have accepted the Christian faith either before their arrival in Croatia or while living in Croatia. There needs to be better cooperation between religious organizations, churches, and religiously affiliated humanitarian organizations in offering various social and psychological services to asylees and asylum seekers. Because churches and faith communities have access to the human resources needed for using their humanitarian ministries to meet the needs of asylum seekers and asylees as efficiently and thoroughly as possible, we recommend that they create a unified list of professionals, including lawyers, doctors and health professionals, Croatian and English language teachers, and Farsi and Arabic translators who are willing to offer free professional assistance to asylum seekers. We also recommend coordinating efforts to provide concrete assistance to new asylees, including assistance in finding an apartment, employment, childcare, shopping, and other practical types of help in the first days and weeks of their independent life in Croatia. We call on churches to become shelters where asylum seekers and asylees will feel welcome, secure, protected, and able to receive psychological and spiritual support, thereby diminishing the traumatic consequences of long-term uncertainty and other difficult aspects of refugee life.
Recommendations for asylum seekers and asylees
When making statements and giving interviews, always tell the truth about the details of your life, your origin, the country you left, your personal documents, your education, and the reasons why you are seeking asylum in Croatia. Despite the many limitations and barriers created by the inefficient application of existing legal rights and protections of asylum seekers in Croatia, show initiative in proactively approaching the process of integrating into Croatian society. Make learning the Croatian language your top priority. Also, get involved in volunteer activities, which can help you integrate, understand, and accept Croatian and European culture and traditions. Use every opportunity to confirm that you wish to stay in the Republic of Croatia and make it your new home. When invited to interviews with representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, make it clear through your appearance and behavior that you desire to stay in Croatia, contribute to Croatian society, and respect its culture, traditions, and laws. Be patient. Even if the process is long and difficult, do not give up and leave Croatia until the last possibility of receiving a positive response from the Croatian authorities has been exhausted. Your follow through and patience, accompanied by taking initiative and demonstrating an understanding of the complexity of the situation will, in most cases, help you receive asylum status and residence in Croatia. Patience pays off in the majority of cases.
We are sending you this document hoping that it will help expedite the integration process for asylum seekers and asylees in the Republic of Croatia and increase the understanding of Croatian authorities and government organizations, as well as church organizations and humanitarian organizations of the difficult and uncertain path which asylum seekers and asylees must travel in Croatia.
On behalf of the organization team of the ROM forum, “Moving forward in truth, with courage and hope.”
Tihomir Kukolja, Director, Renewing Our Minds, Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation
Mihal Kreko, Pastor, Malesnica Baptist Church, Zagreb, Community Activist and Work as Calling Director
Heather N. Staff, Core team member, Renewing Our Minds; Policy Adviser – Kate Green MP (UK), for Resettlement, Asylum, Migration Policy (RAMP) project
Zagreb, Croatia, 27thMarch, 2019.
Translation: Rachel Ruvarac
It is noted that terminology for those granted asylum can differ between countries. For our purposes asylees refers to those granted political asylum
We also recommend greater work on training and sensitivity of border officials and police with regard to asylum applications and understanding that not everyone knows they need to officially ask for asylum.