Spain: A land of asylum?

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The commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the proclamation of our Constitution which, in its article 13.4, recognises the right to asylum as one of the fundamental rights, comes in between the anniversaries of two concurring events that are particularly relevant. On the one hand, the 22 July 1978 was also the quarter-century anniversary of Spain's adhesion to the two main international legal instruments for the protection of refugees the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 New York Protocol. Just when it recovered democracy Spanish society, which knew very well about the tragic meaning of exile, expressed its will to commit itself in the defence of people who had to flee their countries because their human rights were under threat.

Only six months after the Carta Magna [the Constitution was approved on 7 May 1979], representatives of the political parties, of trade union organisations, of religious faiths, and of non governmental organisations and organisations for the defence of human rights founded the Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR), as an expression of the constitutional mandate to convert Spain into a land of asylum.

However, the celebration of the first twenty-five years of our Carta Magna also coincides with one of the most difficult moments in the government's asylum policy, which violates the provisions in the Constitution, the 1984 Asylum Law and the Geneva Convention on an almost daily basis. Instead of taking in the people who arrive in our country because they require international protection, the government consciously acts against the right to asylum, within the framework of a European Union that is obsessed with sealing its borders and removing refugees to detention centres in third countries.

The most dramatic example is Ceuta, where over 300 persons have applied for refugee status (and hundreds of refugees) are forced to live in poverty in the streets due to the saturation of the Centro de Estancia Temporal para Inmigrantes (CETI, temporary holding centre for immigrants). This is after the government representative had a camp that was set up by Médicos sin Fronteras (MSF) to provide the assistance that the authorities were denying them were evicted by force. Furthermore, alongside recent allegations of police brutality against refugees who sleep on the beaches, CEAR's yearly report, La situación de los refugiados en España, documents how members of the Policía Nacional (National Police) forced several asylum applicants to abandon Spanish territory by crawling under the barbed-wire fence of the border perimeter, in an absolutely irregular and inhumane manner.

The humanitarian crisis in Ceuta has reached such a serious condition that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) has recently demanded that the government accord a dignified treatment to refugees, and that it speed up the procedures concerning asylum applications, which currently involve a four-month wait on average.

On the other hand, the obstacles to reaching Spanish territory (for example, the imposition of a visa requirement) are ever-increasing, due to the restrictions that the Executive has imposed in its three reforms of the Ley de Extranjería (Aliens' Law, the Spanish law on immigration) during its term in office, something unheard of for an organic law, which requires an extensive social and political agreement. The impediments that it envisages to prevent thousands of refugees from applying for asylum in Spain mean that these persons may continue to be exposed to suffering human rights violations.

This is the case for the citizens of Colombia, a country that has been bled white by an undeclared civil war during the last four decades. According to Interior Ministry figures, 2,532 Colombian citizens applied for asylum in 2001, a figure which, due to the visa requirement decreed by the government in January 2002, fell to 1,065 last year and to 410 in the first ten months of 2003 . Moreover

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