EU buffer states and UNHCR “processing” centres and "safe havens"


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  • 20 “neighbour” states to create new “buffer” zone
  • readmission agreements unilateralist and inhumane
  • UNHCR plans for "safe havens" in region of origin and "processing" centres in EU
  • "immediate transfer: upon arrival anywhere within the territory of EU Member States [of].. all asylum-seekers from the designated countries of origin" [to] "closed reception centres"
  • little opposition to proposals at JHA Council on 5 June

The Observer newspaper reported on Sunday (15.6.03) that a pilot camp was being set up in Croatia to hold up to 800 refugees and asylum-seekers: Observer story On Monday, 16 June the Guardian newspaper quoted Home Office officials as saying that they "have no record of this" and it is suggested that the camp being built with EU funds is being prepared by the Croation government as a holding centre for people seeking asylum in that country: Guardian

Anyone reading the press release of the Council of Justice and Home Affairs Minister on 5-6 June in Luxembourg would have wondered what all the press speculation was about on the issue of whether the EU was going to adopt the proposals put forward by the UK government on creating so-called "safe havens" for refugees and asylum-seekers. The press release simply said:

"In the context of the preparation of the Thessaloniki European Council (20 June 2003), the Council.. held a first exchange of views on a number of Presidency and Commission reports on the following matters: Commission communication on the development of a common policy on illegal immigration, smuggling and trafficking of human beings, external borders and the return of illegal residents, [and the] Commission communication towards more accessible, equitable and managed asylum"

This feature looks at the background and provides the full documentation.

(update, 13.6.03) Report from the Luxembourg meeting on the Justice and Home Affairs Council, 5-6 June: On the issue of asylum "processing centres" the issue was introduced by JHA Commissioner Vittorino referring to (COM (2003) 315, see text below) and is said to have received a very good reception.

Only the Swedish government voiced strong criticism and firm opposition (they have also written to the UNHCR to express their disappointment at its position). The Netherlands, DEnmark and Austria, together with the UK, are most strongly in favour. Schilly, who previously expressed opposition, said Germany was not opposed on principle but were concerned over the resolution of legal questions.

The key issues are the location of the processing centres and the trial project. The UNHCR is adamant that the camps must be inside the EU, but the UK and Denmark are set on Albania and Ukraine. The states in favour hope to get a pilot project up and running by the end of the year. The pilot camp 'could be' inside the EU, though most likely in an accession state. Inside sources say they will get something up and running, potentially in Romania or Bulgaria.

Although some delegations raised legal issues the UK is adamant that these can be 'ironed out' during the pilot. Apparently, according a UNHCR source, Lubbers had similar ideas for asylum camps when he was in the Dutch gov. in the early- mid 1990s. On safe havens, Kenya and Tanzania were mentioned as possible havens for Somalians.

Visa database: The European Commission has completed its study and found the database feasible. Estimated technical costs are 130-200 million euros including biometric identifiers. Both issues to be discussed further at summit.


1. UNHCR plans for camps in EU and in "regions" of origin, April 2003 - "Processing centres" (pdf) a later version dated June 2003 (pdf)

2. Letter from Blair to Greek Presidency proposing "safe havens": Blair-Simitis (pdf)

3. Proposals from the European Commission dated 3 June 2002: a) Towards more accessible, equitable and managed asylum system: COM (2003) 315 (pdf) COM (2003) 315 (Word) b) On the development of a common policy on illegal immigration, smuggling and trafficking of human beings, external borders and the return of illegal immigrants: COM (2003) 323 (pdf)

4. Proposal from the European Commission (COM(2003)355, dated 11.6.03) on a programme for financial and technical assistance to third countries in the area of migration and asylum: COM(2003)355 (pdf)

5. European Commission proposal: Wider Europe - Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours, (COM(2003) 104 final, 11.3.2002)

6. Statewatch analysis of readmission agreements

EU buffer states and UNHCR “processing” centres and "safe havens"

The EU has come a long way since the creation of "Fortress Europe" in the mid-1980s, which sought to construct a "cordon sanitaire" at its external borders to keep migrants out. Tentative steps were taken in the late 1990s to try and introduce readmission agreements with third world countries so that nationals (and stateless people) could be returned. The High Level Group on Migration, set up in December 1998, attempted to target selected countries (like Somalia and Morocco) by bringing political and economic pressure (like threatening exports and withdrawing aid) to bear to get agreement.

The reaction post-11 September through the "war on terrorism" has been of an entirely new dimension because every refugee and asylum-seeker fleeing poverty and persecution is a potential "terrorist" or criminal (as well as being perceived as a "burden" of western economies).

A new Statewatch analysis of the EU's readmission agreements with non-EU states concludes:

"The EU's approach to readmission agreements involves insisting that more and more non-EU countries sign up to road readmission obligations to the EU with little or nothing in return. EU policy has been backed by harsher and harsher rhetoric and threats against third countries as the EU becomes more and more unilateralist and focused solely on migration control. These policies are unbalanced, inhumane, and internally contradictory."

One of the latest initiatives is the creation of a "Circle of friends" or EU “neighbours” which are defined as Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus plus the "Western Newly Independent States (WNIS)" of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo plus the "Southern Mediterranean" states of Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia (only Ukraine and Moldova are seeking accession to the EU). The plan is to create a "friendly neighbourhood" of "prosperity" and "peace" with the underlying motivation being to protect the EU from trans-border threats of terrorism, crime and migration. These countries will be expected to institute "reform" (free market capitalism) and to implement key parts of the EU's acquis communautaire - especially on "enhanced cooperation on justice and security issues" including illegal migration, judicial and police cooperation and "threats to stability". The European Commission is reluctant to define the final borders of the EU but the new formalised "buffer states" will create in turn problems for the new set of buffer states like Western Sahara, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan in Africa, Georgia, Armenia and Iran and in Asia Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and even the USA (in the Bering Straits). It can be expected, like in the past, that buffer states be subjected to political and economic pressures to to adopt EU “standards” on the control of migration (and crime).

The EU has thus moved through a number of stages: i) "Fortress Europe" to secure its own borders, the creation of "buffer states" (against immigration, terrorism and crime) in central and eastern Europe states, most of which are to join the EU in 2004, ii) now there is the creation of formal new "neighbour" states which in turn creates new "buffer" states.

This latest development coincides with two other strategic initiatives: First, moves to strengthen "Fortress Europe" through controls at the external borders of the EU, the move from voluntary repatriation to forced repatriation and new laws to punish those who harbour or give work to un-recorded migrants (see Statewatch vol 12 no 5). The second initiative is the swift adoption of the UK government proposal to create so-called "safe havens" (camps which do not have to meet EU standards) in "neighbour" states (eg: Ukraine) and "region of origin" (eg: West Africa), to return migrants suffering poverty and persecution to camps in the countries or regions from which they are fleeing.

Internal UNHCR documents dated April 2003 show that the organisation is bidding to undertake a similar role in cooperation with the EU (here it is trying to fend off the IOM, International Organisation on Migration, which is an unaccountable intergovernmental body). The first stage would see the "immediate transfer: upon arrival anywhere within the territory of EU Member States [of].. all asylum-seekers from the designated countries of origin" to "closed reception centres" located in one or two member states where they would be "processed" under a fast-track procedure taking no more than "one month". Those found in need of protection (from persecution) who be distributed "fairly" around the EU (no choice for the refugee is set out), so-called "economic migrants" would be immediately sent back to the country of origin under EU imposed readmission agreements or sent to detention centres in the region of origin. The aim is that there would be no national asylum and appeal processes only those carried out in EU closed processing centres.

The effect will be to remove decision-making at the national level and hence national responsibility for refugees and asylum-seekers. They will be placed in enormous processing centres out of sight and no doubt heavily guarded to stop escapes and to deter protests.

The overall message was highlighted at a Greek EU Presidency conference in Athens on 15-16 May where the Foreign Minister, George A Papandreou, welcomed a selected audience of "many of the best thinkers in migration". He went through a catalogue of measures to combat "illegal immigration" and said that the EU "must welcome the economic migrants that our societies need" through "smart borders" (emphasis in original) and "well-managed immigration selection schemes" which could meet the expected 30% fall in the working population (and a drop from 22% to 12% of the EU's share of world trade). A report, he noted, suggested that the EU needed 30 million immigrants by 2020. These migrants were needed, he said, to do the jobs that: "too many of our fellow Europeans are not willing or able to do" - in other words for either the dirty low-paid jobs or highly-skilled workers.

While the EU is to reject those fleeing from poverty it wants to bring in migrants who will help in maintaining its "prosperity" and standards of living.

Source: This analysis first appeared in Statewatch bulletin, March-April (vol 13 no 2)

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