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24th Oct 2020

Coronavirus

Romanians flood airports, despite virus restrictions

  • Workers crowded onto 12 flights to Germany from Cluj-Napoca airport last Thursday (Photo: Ziarul Clujean)

Social distancing was not on the minds of the 2,000 seasonal workers waiting tightly packed on Thursday (9 April) to enter Cluj-Napoca Airport, in central Romania.

They arrived in droves into the parking lot and at the airport entrance, waiting to fly to Germany where they will spend the next few months working in agriculture.

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This comes after Germany relaxed border restrictions enforced during the coronavirus outbreak to allow in harvest workers, mainly from eastern Europe, enabling local farmers to hire much needed workforce.

Last week's scenes took everyone by surprise as Romania has been on tight lockdown for the past 20 days, with movement of people and gatherings severely restricted.

While the country remains under a state of emergency trying to grapple with the spread of coronavirus, seasonal workers in central Romania boarded 12 charter flights landing at selected airports across Germany last Thursday, according to the Cluj-Napoca Airport director.

The workers were bussed to the airport from various counties in Transylvania and north-eastern Romania, he added.

Some came from Suceava county, hundreds of kilometers away, in chock-full busses.

Suceava, in north-eastern Romania registers about one-third of coronavirus cases counted nationwide and has been under strict quarantine since early this month. The north-eastern region, nicknamed Romania's Lombardy after the Italian epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, became the country's major Covid-19 hotspot.

Local authorities said they will launching an investigation into the recruiting firm that managed moving the workers to the airport.

Romanian prime minister Ludovic Orban also stepped in, calling for an inquiry into what happened at Cluj Airport and for the resignation of the airport manager for not enforcing social distancing and not ensuring safety measures for those present there.

Transport minister Lucian Bode pointed towards the recruiting agency that brought in hundreds of workers to the airport's parking lot, all at the same time and in the early morning, despite charter flights taking off in the afternoon.

Not just Cluj

The chaos and confusion at Cluj-Napoca continued the next day, when, on Friday, another 1,000 or so people gathered from the early hours of the morning expecting to leave for Germany.

The Cluj county prefect initially said that all flights would be canceled and asked people to go home. Then he went back on his decision and announced that the flights will be authorised to leave.

A similar incident happened at Iasi airport, in eastern Romania, where two planes initially barred from flying got the green light and took off for Germany.

The people leaving the country, helping to harvest asparagus, cabbage, and fruit, rely on the money they raise by working abroad.

Caught up in Germany's ban on travel after the outbreak of the coronavirus, seasonal workers from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine can now go back to work under the new program devised by the German agriculture ministry.

The programme aims to bring up to 80,000 seasonal workers back into the country over the next two months.

Wary that a shortage in seasonal recruits from abroad might affect Germany's food industry and grocery supplies, authorities allowed foreign workers to return only under strict rules.

To prevent contamination, seasonal workers were meant to spend 14 days in quarantine and then work in small teams to minimise to risk of spreading the virus. Visitors would not be allowed and workers would live in special quarters.

Italy needs workers

Meanwhile, Italy is also looking to bring back its agricultural workers.

Some 105,000 Romanians, a third of all seasonal workers in Italy, return to the country each year to work on local farms.

This year, the agricultural workforce is lacking either because people are under lockdown in their countries of origin or feel that coming to Italy might pose a health risk.

The Italian ministry of agriculture has stressed the urgency of the situation and met the Romanian ambassador to Rome to discuss a deal, but no arrangement has been reached yet.

For its part, the European Commission has been urging countries to establish procedures to ensure the smooth passage of essential workers, which also include seasonal workers.

It will shortly start work on so-called 'green corridors' to allow continued flow of goods and people during the Covid-19 pandemic, it said.

Author bio

Cristian Gherasim is a freelance journalist contributing to EUobserver, Euronews, EU Reporter, Katoikos, Von Mises Institute, and bne IntelliNews, with a particular focus on European and regional affairs.

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