EU: Dramatic changes in refugee policy

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A recent policy document from the Austrian government, currently holding the EU presidency, calls for African countries to fingerprint potential emigrants to enable them to be identified if they turn up undocumented in Europe. The idea, carried to its logical conclusion, would be a global database keeping tabs on all "undesirables". Another interesting idea from the Austrians is to supplement, amend or replace the existing arrangements for refugees, which involves the grant of individual legal rights, with a "political offer" of assistance which would make it much easier to return refugees to their countries of origin following ceasefires. The document insists that the Geneva Convention is outdated and inappropriate for today's forms of persecution, which are not repression by authoritarian governments but inter-ethnic strife by non-governmental forces. That is certainly true in Bosnia and Rwanda, but unfortunately, the two forms of persecution - that organised by governments and that carried out by local populations - often go hand in hand. The paper is oriented towards return of refugees to havens either in the country of persecution or in neighbouring states, as happens in Africa, where Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia (precariously) house each other's refugees.

Migration control in Europe is seen in terms of concentric circles: EU and EEA member states have rigorous external controls and define each other as "safe" for the purpose of returning refugees in transit. The second ring of states are applicant states round the periphery of the EU, which can be prevailed upon to tighten their own controls as a condition of entry. The third circle are those transit countries such as Turkey (whose own production of refugees the report ignores) and Russia, for whom favourable trade conditions can be made to depend on controls on third country nationals entering and cooperation in repatriation. For the fourth circle, the countries of emigration such as China and African countries, development aid can be tied to cooperation on readmission and policies to prevent emigration.

The document also calls for greater streamlining of migration responsibilities within the EU, with a commissioner for migration to deal with both first- and third-pillar initiatives. It suggests an immigration Convention to harmonise immigration rules for employment and family reunion, an asylum Convention to deal with inter-ethnic displacement, non-state persecution, internal flight alternatives and safe havens in third states, group assessments and quotas, and a possible Convention on mass return after temporary protection.

If the asylum provisions were implemented, it would probably spell an end to the large-scale grant of legal rights of settlement to refugees, which would be replaced by collective assessment and temporary protection in camps in or near the country of emigration. Individuals arriving in Europe would be returned to these camps. The refugee problem would finally be exported out of western Europe, to be dealt with in someone else's backyard.

Note from Presidency to K4 Committee, ASIM 170, Brussels, 1 July 1998.<

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