Asylum in the EU: the beginning of the end?


"[Our] focus should be on ensuring that forced migration is for a temporary period only… [The] international community must take action to resolve conflicts, and human rights abuse and commit to post conflict reconstruction to enable sustainable return. There is no international law permitting such intervention and it is still highly controversial. Nevertheless, refugee flows have been used in the past to justify intervention, for example in Kosovo… As a last resort, there needs to be military intervention."

(UK government "restricted policy", draft Final report, 5 February 2003)

At tomorrow's informal meeting of EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers (28 March 2003) in Greece, the UK government's "new vision for refugees" will be discussed. The plan proposes the "external processing" of asylum claims and "protection in the region" for refugees - in short, the creation of camps in eastern Europe, Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. The UK proposals have not yet been published. This analysis is based on a draft of the UK proposals (dated 5 February) obtained by Statewatch (1).

Background

In Britain, with tabloid driven racism against refugees and asylum-seekers reaching new levels (following calls from the Conservative party that all asylum-seekers be locked up indefinitely for security vetting) a "confidential" policy document was leaked to the press in early February.

The government's "new vision for refugees" is a "global network of safe havens" - "camps whose prime purpose is to provide a place of safety and process claims". The underlying principle is "protection not migration" - there will be "no need to flee". However, the UK proposals offer no proposals as to how this will be achieved, beyond the continuation of existing humanitarian and development programmes.

In the meantime, it is proposed to accommodate those still fleeing conflict, poverty, persecution or environmental disaster in UNHCR administered camps, if not in the actual country they are fleeing, then in the region. All will be entitled to six months temporary protection while their asylum applications were being processed. The fraction that actually manage to reach the EU to make an application would be sent immediately to a safe haven in Europe - but outside the EU - for processing (possibly the Ukraine post-EU enlargement or even Albania in the short-term (2)).

"Narrowest" definition of a refugee

Successful applicants for asylum will be entitled to protection in the EU or other developed countries. However, "resettlement cannot be a right" and the definition of refugee should be "at its narrowest" for long-term assistance, resettlement and local integration. Internally displaced refugees (IDPs) - there are some 20 million worldwide - will not have access to the safe havens. There will be "some form of internal policing to avoid internal violence and prevent entry of combatants", though refugees will be "free to leave" - but will then be ineligible for any form of international protection elsewhere.

What level of protection?

The legitimacy of the plans is seen to rest on the camps' provision of a level of protection in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Convention on refugees. The document sees the crucial issue as whether the safe havens will be seen by the Courts as compatible with Article 3 of the Geneva Convention which provides for non-refoulement of refugees to unsafe countries. In one of several references to the potential amendment of the Geneva Convention, it is suggested that:

"It may be wise to state this in a revised version of the Geneva Convention" (p16)

Despite assurances as to the conditions in the proposed camps, it is also suggested that:

"basic humanitarian assistance should not be significantly higher than the local communities' resources otherwise it will cause resentment" (p11)

Given the suggested locations for the "safe havens" - North or West Africa (likely N. Somalia for S. Somalians; Morocco for Algerians), Turkey (and potentially Iran and N. Iraq for Iraqis and Kurds) and Europe (Ukraine for refugees from the east of the enlarged EU's external border or possibly Albania) - it has to wondered at the prospective conditions in the camps and, moreover, how people denied entry to the West will react? Apparently the only conclusion governments in Britain, Italy, Australia and elsewhere have drawn from the riots, suicides and hunger strikes in their domestic reception centres, is that out of sight is out of mind.

"Coalition of the willing" to press ahead with proposals?

The UK government realises the plans are unpalatable in many quarters, but proposes a trial project of one or two camps/external processing zones under the auspices of a "coalition of willing states" - potentially including Australia, USA and Canada.

Moreover, the UK proposals builds on EU discussions from 1988, when EU senior officials visited the Turkish government to discuss financing such a camp (see Statewatch bulletin, vol 8 no 3). The six Action Plans of the High Level Working Group on Immigration, adopted at the Tampere summit (Finland, October 1999) also endorse the principle of protection in the region (see Statewatch bulletin, vol 9 no 5).

The Justice and Home Affairs Directorates of the European Commission and EU Council have already held informal discussions with UK Home Office during February and March, and the EU has recently called on the Commission to:

"elaborate further on strengthening the use of development cooperation in the search of solutions for refugees, in return and reintegration, as well as local integration" (3)

No less telling is the fact the proposals are already on the agenda of the next JHA Council meeting in June - before the outcome of tomorrow's discussions are known.

It is as yet unclear whether the UNHCR can accept the proposals, though Commissioner Ruud Lubbers is said to be privately enthusiastic. Moreover, the UNHCR knows that if it does accept the role devised for it, the IOM (International Organisation on Migration - an intergovernmental organisation with no accountability within the EU) is waiting willingly in the wings.

More "contamination" of the development agenda

The cooperation of countries to host "safe havens" must also be secured. The UK proposals suggest that:

"Countries would be persuaded to host a safe haven largely because they are probably dealing with a large refugee population already. The best chance of success on this front is if we can sell the programme as a real investment in that region" (p11)

However, the way the programme will in fact be "sold" to the targeted countries is more explicit later in the text:

"[At] every level of governance (domestic, EU, international) in development, trade, conflict resolution and promotion of human rights, the factor of reducing forced migration should be explicit and played into the wider agendas of these objectives" (p14)

The EU is already pursuing such an agenda. In June 2002, the Seville European Council agreed upon the establishment of a single body for General Affairs and External Relations. Gone is the principle of Article 3 of the TEU which gives development policy an independent role in foreign policy. It will now be considered alongside security and defence and external trade and aid. This, suggests a report commissioned by the European Parliament, "creates a risk of development considerations being seen as less important, even ignored" (4).

A number of examples suggest that this already happening. For instance, the imposition of readmission obligations in the Lomé and Cotonou Conventions on aid and trade between the EU and 77 ACP states; proposals to sanction countries not cooperating with EU (and US) Financial Intelligence Units on the trail of terrorist cash; the potential inclusion of anti-terrorism clauses in EU-third country agreements; and the recent Commission communication on "integrating migration issues in the EU's relations with third countries" (5).

Military action to combat refugee flows?

New Labour's "new vision" of migration control must be seen in the context of wider doctrines of regime change, pre-emptive strikes, crisis-management, peace-keeping and reconstruction:

"[Our] focus should be on ensuring that forced migration is for a temporary period only… [The] international community must take action to resolve conflicts, and human rights abuse and commit to post conflict reconstruction to enable sustainable return. There is no international law permitting such intervention and it is still highly controversial. Nevertheless, refugee flows have been used in the past to justify intervention, for example in Kosovo… As a last resort, there needs to be military intervention."

Notes

(1) "A new vision for refugees", UK government "restricted policy", draft Final report, 5 February 2003

(2) Although the above document makes no mention of Albania, media reports in early March suggest that it is part of government thinking (e.g. The Guardian, 11.3.03)

(3) 'Draft Council conclusions on Migration and Development', Council of the EU document 6175/03, 7.2.03

(4) R. Pabst (2003) "The impact of 11 September 2001 on the developing countries and the implications for EU development policy", European Parliament, DG Research Working Paper, DEVE 106 EN 01/2003.

(5) COM (2002) 703, 3.12.02. For analysis of this document see Statewatch European Monitor, vol 3, no 4 (Feb 2003).



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