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Many Refugees Misunderstand Schengen Expansion

By Andrea Szobolits and Melita Sunjic
in Budapest, Hungary

Many refugees misunderstand Schengen expansion

Budapest, Hungary, December 21 - With fireworks and the symbolic dismantling of border checkpoints across Eastern Europe, nine of the newest European Union member nations joined the Schengen border-free travel zone on Friday.

Freedom from border formalities will be good news for EU nationals, business travellers and tourists, but most refugees and asylum seekers living in the eastern EU frontier states of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia will be disappointed if they think that new opportunities and freedoms will open up for them now that these four have become Schengen members.

Pakistani refugee Khaleb* arrived in Slovakia two years ago but says he can't earn enough to support his mother, wife and four children. He planned to head to the Netherlands when border controls are abolished after Slovakia joins the Schengen zone. "In the Netherlands, there is a strong Pakistani community and I am sure they will assist me in finding good work," he said confidently.

His optimism is misplaced, but not unusual among refugees and asylum seekers who were looking forward to Friday, when the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta also joined the 15 current Schengen states.

UNHCR's regional representation in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, is so concerned about the widespread misconceptions about Schengen expansion that it has issued an information leaflet explaining the changes.

"People are under the impression that in addition to crossing borders without passports, they can also settle down and work wherever they want within the Schengen zone," said Regional Representative Lloyd Dakin.

These refugees and asylum seekers already face a number of difficulties finding jobs and integrating. Dakin said they "need to know that this is also true elsewhere in the EU and they might create additional problems for themselves and their status if they move around irregularly."

Recognized refugees in the nine new Schengen states will now, like tourists, be able to cross borders, but they will not be not be able to stay longer than 90 days and they will not be able to work in other member states without residence and work permits. They will need visas for the United Kingdom and Ireland, which are not members of the Schengen zone.

Travelling is more difficult for asylum seekers whose status is being assessed. Under EU law, they cannot leave the country where they initially lodged an asylum application until there is a decision. They are usually not entitled to work during the asylum procedure.

The fingerprints of all asylum seekers are recorded in an EU database and they can be returned to their first country of asylum if caught trying to enter another member state while their status is under review.

That doesn't stop people trying. James* from West Africa arrived in Hungary six months ago and submitted an asylum claim. Lured by promises of high salaries and good prospects, he sneaked into Italy. It was not long before harsh reality set in.

"Nobody employed me and after two weeks I had no money. I lived on the street and I was begging and hiding," said James, who returned to Hungary and is now awaiting a decision about his asylum application. He was lucky because his disappearance had not been noticed by the authorities.

But despite the restrictions, the Schengen expansion is good news for refugees who find work that entails travel. Daniel*, a refugee from Kosovo, works for an international human rights agency in Budapest.

"I have to travel abroad for conferences and training. So far, I have had great difficulties getting visas because my refugee passport is only valid for one year. Because of this, I nearly lost my job," he said. "For me, Schengen will not only mean visa-free travel, but it will also help me keep my job and support myself and my family," Daniel added.

Meanwhile, the EU frontier states have long been prepared to prevent people from crossing their borders from the east in the hope of making their way further west. "Here, we will not see big changes on December 21. Our borders have been compatible with Schengen for months now," said Miroslav Uchnar, commander of Slovakian border guards on the frontier with Ukraine.

The external borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia are already being monitored with an arsenal of technical equipment to prevent irregular migrants from entering.

But the UN refugee agency wants to ensure that people in need of protection are able to cross. "It is our mandate to make sure that, however strict border controls become, people who come to seek international protection can still enter. Each asylum-seeker must have access to fair and efficient procedures," said UNHCR's Dakin.

UNHCR's preparations for the new Schengen zone have been under way for months. It has signed agreements with governments and NGO partners aimed at ensuring that asylum seekers are identified and that they have access to information informing them of their rights. The agency also helps train border guards to tell the difference between refugees and illegal migrants.

* Names changed for protection reasons


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