Displaced people… where are we heading?

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Seven out of 10 of forcibly displaced people in the world today are hosted by the poorest countries. Only three per cent of refugees manage to seek asylum in the so-called industrialised countries. We could well be excused for coming to the conclusion that the reality is far different. Hearing politicians speak, reading newspapers, and tuning in to broadcasting stations in the European Union (EU) and the accession countries,, we are bombarded by dire predictions about floods of “illegal immigrants” all heading our way. These migrants, we are told, come to seek asylum but are very likely “bogus”, they are a drain on our resources, they take our jobs and social benefits, threaten our culture, commit crimes… the list goes on.

Yet most people who for some reason or another are forced to leave their homes remain in their part of the world and are hosted by nations as poor as their own. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), launching its annual statistics in December last year, said industrialised countries had a long way to go before they could lay claim to taking on a proportionate share of the global refugee problem.

The EU is not having any of this. Aptly nicknamed Fortress Europe, it is fast erecting bastions to keep undocumented migrants out. The migrants may be seeking asylum from persecution, or perhaps they are searching for a better life for themselves and their families. Whatever the migrants’ reasons are, humanitarian and human rights agencies claim the response of the EU is to close its doors to most of those who knock. European states appear to vie with each other to find creative ways of putting up barriers: accelerated procedures, sanctions on carriers like airplanes, sending people back to the last country they transited through, visa restrictions and stricter border controls. Whatever the means employed, one thing is clear: they practically always signify less opportunity for asylum seekers to get the help they need.

The gap between words and deeds looms large. European leaders underlined their “absolute respect of the right to seek asylum” at a special summit held in Finland in 1999. The meeting was hailed as a milestone in the shaping of a common migration and asylum policy. But although EU states promised to balance efforts to control immigration with a commitment to guaranteeing protection to those who needed it, many maintain that access for asylum seekers has not been in evidence.

Another summit of European leaders about migration, held in Seville in June 2002, drew expressions of concern from lobbying agencies, among them Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe, which claimed measures aimed to tighten border security in Europe and to send back illegal immigrants were too narrow and put the lives of refugees at risk. As explained by Brussels -based JRS Europe director, John Dardis SJ: “You can have the right to asylum. You can have an asylum system. But it will mean nothing unless people are able to get to the territory to claim that asylum.”

Far from being effective, tightened border controls could only serve to drive people into hands of traffickers, forcing them underground if and when they finally get to a European country. “The more Fortress Europe sets up barriers, the more people will be forced to look for desperate measures,” said Richard Williams, head of policy of the UK Refugee Council, echoing a widely-held viewpoint.

EU representatives beg to differ. “Absolute rubbish” was how the press person for Justice and Home Affairs of the European Commission, Leonello Gabrici, described the notion that tough controls would touch upon asylum seekers’ rights. “The objective of the fight against illegal immigration is not opening the hunting season to find ‘illegals’ and send them back. If you want to be open to legal migration, you need strict, fair and transparent border controls,” said Mr Gabrici.

In this scenario, several states are now set to become ramparts of Fortress Europe, adapting their asylum legislation and practices to EU norms in the enlargement process. As states in central and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean gear up for membership, working overtime to fulfil the criteria laid out in the acquis, they are instructed to cement their borders to stem tides of irregular migrants. Enhancing staff capacity through increased numbers and training is emphasized. The latest European Commission progress reports describe heightened detection of irregular migrants, as in Poland for example, as a “positive statistical trend”, and Malta and Cyprus have been warned they must further reinforce their controls.

The eagerness to have stringent controls in place has almost certainly led to increased interception of irregular migrants, as happened in Malta. The Czech Republic and Hungary had similar increases in 2001, with the former experiencing a 106% rise in asylum seekers over 2000. Don Flynn, project and policy officer of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says: “Officials from central Europe are reconciled to the fact that they will have higher migrant numbers. It seems clear this is not a blip, a transitional problem, as they become border states of the EU.”

Perhaps accession countries cannot be blamed for feeling under pressure. Commenting about Malta, Amnesty International refugee coordinator, Eve Lester, said: “Eastern Europe has the same problem: the pressure is on to detain asylum seekers to present onward movement. What do I as an accession country say to the EU if migrants escape?” Flynn agreed: “Accession countries are adapting their legislation to EU norms as part of the enlargement process. What this in effect means is that these countries are bending over backwards to prove they can police EU borders.”

As central and eastern European countries consolidate market economies, migrants could well form a useful part of their labour market in the modernization process, if they stay put. But Malta’s authorities insist they have no room and hold that while they will grant refugee status to deserving cases, they can do no more. Malta cannot and should not hope to shirk its international obligations by virtue of its small size, but it does face serious problems to cope, and asylum seekers and refugees end up paying the price. Reception centres are far from adequate; overcrowding and miserable living conditions prevail. Asylum seekers who are granted protection are not informed of this decision and kept in detention because no community accommodation is available.

The EU has said remarkably little about helping Malta and other countries with less developed asylum infrastructures to shoulder the burden.

Burden-sharing is a burning issue for member states as they wriggle out of responsibility for handling asylum applications. “I suspect the EU will be eager to help Malta improve its border controls – anything to keep asylum seekers out – but less enthusiastic about improving Malta’s asylum system and sharing the cost of supporting asylum seekers,” said Mr Williams. “However, I hope Malta would still live up to its international obligations.”

And this is where the crux of the matter lies. Accession countries are absorbed with being up to scratch for membership, but does this guarantee respect for human rights and protection for those who need it? The official line is that accession countries are being guided in both migration control and fair asylum procedures. The passing of asylum laws or amendments to existing legislation in accession countries mean standards and structures to safeguard rights have been put in place. The downside is that many laws include accelerated procedures, means to get rid of applicants with “manifestly unfounded” claims, and other infringements on the right to seek asylum. And numbers of accepted refugees remain extremely low, especially in relation to statistics of applications.
The emphasis of preparations for membership appears to be more on control than asylum: a twinning project between Malta and the UK and Spain is 60% about border control. Even if asylum seekers manage to squeeze through reinforced border controls, they are often detained in reception centres, which have mushroomed in accession countries in recent years.

Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) went so far to say that the acquis in asylum policy should not be followed without a major overhaul to ensure respect for basic principles of human rights and refugee protection. It is clearly not enough for accession countries to bend over backwards to prove they can implement Fortress Europe policies. The exclusion mentality on which they are based ignores the realities of the world asylum seekers and other migrants escape, to their detriment. In applying the acquis, as more migrants are intercepted, we need to be extra vigilant to ensure we do not do so at the expense of the rights of those who seek protection and support.

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