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New safety or old danger? UN ‘protection areas’ for refugees

Gil Loescher James Milner
13 February 2003

  • Plans to return asylum seekers from Britain to protection areas in Asia and Africa are misguided and unworkable, and would place asylum seekers at considerable risk.
  • Sharing the burden of hosting refugees is an essential precondition for the successful implementation of international refugee protection instruments.
  • Conditions in the regions in question fall well below any standard that could satisfy a British court that the human rights of those removed were not being abused by the proposed scheme.
  • Given its limited resources and shortage of staff in these regions, it is unlikely that UNHCR would be able to provide a protected environment for Britain’s returned asylum seekers.
  • UK and other western governments will be in a better position to address the problems of irregular migration if they equip themselves with a broad range of policies to tackle the causes of refugee flight at their source.

While the international community is focusing sharply on the impending war in Iraq and its possible consequences, significant new measures are being considered to dramatically cut the number of asylum applications to the UK in the future.

Most alarming was a lead article in the Guardian on 5 February 2003 that leaked a UK cabinet and Home Office proposal that would deny the right to seek asylum to a majority of asylum seekers in Britain. The plan seeks to ‘regionalise’ asylum by returning asylum seekers from the UK to United Nations (UN) ‘protection areas’ where their applications would be processed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

The plan would most severely target Iraqi, Somali and Algerian asylum seekers, and would seek to transfer them to Turkey, Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, northern Somalia and Morocco. This plan is not only misguided and unworkable, but would place asylum seekers at considerable risk.

These potential host states already have huge refugee populations. Iran alone has hosted over two million refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq over the past twenty years. Turkey is inundated with illegal migrants and asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

The long presence of refugees and asylum seekers in these countries, coupled with diminishing international support, has resulted not only in severe social, economic and environmental strains, but in threats to domestic and regional stability.

It is unrealistic and unethical to think that countries that now feel overburdened would be willing to assume responsibility for yet more refugees. There is very little incentive for them to cooperate with the British proposal. For many years, these countries have tolerated the presence of refugees, but recent official statements from Ankara and Tehran have expressed reluctance to accept any new refugees, especially those ensuing from a conflict in Iraq.

The proposed regional approach would also require host states to transfer control over a portion of their territory to an external actor, such as the UN, the EU or the UK. Countries such as Iran and Turkey, who jealously defend their sovereignty, would find this unacceptable.

Sharing the burden of hosting refugees is an essential precondition for the successful implementation of international refugee protection instruments, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention. Regionalisation turns the logic of burden sharing on its head, shifting the responsibility for refugees away from the richer, more distant states, and doubling the burden on poorer states in regions of conflict. Such an approach subverts not only legal principles, but practical considerations of an orderly world based on international solidarity between rich and poor countries.

A process of regionalisation of the UK’s asylum problem would also be a bad deal for refugees and asylum seekers. The countries affected are in insecure areas of the world with limited legal safeguards for refugees.

This reality was brought home to us during a visit to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Kenya in late 2001 and early 2002. There, we examined the human rights environment and physical conditions for Iraqi and Somali asylum seekers, the quality of processing of refugee claims, and access to resettlement opportunities.

Our research findings clearly demonstrated that, in current conditions, and according to the standards of any British court, the human rights of people removed from the UK under any such proposed scheme could not be guaranteed. Refugees we interviewed complained that poor security in their countries of first asylum was their greatest concern.

The human rights records of these countries are poor. Physical harassment, detention, and deportation to the countries where refugees risk persecution occur on a regular basis. Police and security forces arbitrarily harass, detain and arrest refugees. Corruption is rampant.

Refugees also face serious economic and social deprivations in their countries of first asylum; their freedom of movement is severely restricted; they cannot integrate with local populations; they are given inadequate or no assistance; they are refused permission to work. They live in limbo.

Refugee policy, governance, and trade: only connect

The proposed UK plan aims to have UNHCR administer these ‘protected areas’ and process asylum claims there. The UNHCR already runs refugee camps in some of these regions. Indeed, some 125,000 Somalis have been warehoused for over ten years at Dadaab, a refugee camp located in Kenya’s remote north-east, and notorious for its insecurity and violence.

The UNHCR also runs a camp at Kakuma in north-west Kenya for Sudanese refugees. There is widespread sexual abuse, and violence within the camps also includes forced recruitment into militias in Somalia and Sudan, the possible presence of government agents from the countries of origin (including Ethiopia), and inter-clan violence transported from Somalia.

The right of protection means that refugees in imminent danger are given effective and quick use of resettlement. A report by Human Rights Watch on 23 April 2002 (Kenya: Refugee Children Murdered at ‘Secure Residence’ in Nairobi) indicates that this is not the case. In April last year, an assailant (probably an agent from the country from which they had fled) broke into a ‘secure residence’ in Nairobi established by UNHCR for refugees at particular risk. The assailant murdered two Rwandan refugee children, ages nine and ten, by slitting their throats. Their mother, a close relative of a former Rwandan President, was also severely wounded. They had been waiting for eleven months for their resettlement application to be processed.

Given its limited resources and shortage of staff in these regions, it is unlikely that UNHCR would be able to provide a protected environment for Britain’s returned asylum seekers.

There are better long-term alternatives to Britain’s burgeoning asylum problem. An increase in the UK’s overseas resettlement programme could provide protection to those most in need. Increased funding to UNHCR and a broader engagement with states and civil society in the regions of refugee origin could also improve the protection environment for refugees, thereby alleviating their need to seek protection elsewhere.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the UK and other western governments will be in a better position to address the problems of irregular migration, abuse of the asylum system, and the financial and social burdens of refugee protection and migration control if they equip themselves with a broad range of policies to tackle the causes of refugee flight at their source.

Future responses to forced migration cannot be separated from other areas of international concern, such as human rights, good governance, sustainable development, trade, and peace and security issues.

These governments must take seriously the actual conditions in regions of refugee origin, the concerns of host states, and the overall protection environment for refugees there. If they do not, they risk a severe policy failure that will create an even bigger refugee problem in the future.

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