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Home from home? The journey to a better refugee policy

The root cause leading people to leave their homes should be addressed first, and failing that, refugees should be granted asylum without hesitation, as the ultimate himan right.  [Reposted from openDemocracy, June 2003]

A key component of the People Flow migration proposal of Theo Veenkamp and his associates is that of ‘international transit centres’ for asylum-seekers, and ‘protection in regions of refugee origin’. This is similar to the new policy approach of the British government which seeks to establish ‘protected zones’ in third countries and to regionalise asylum processing in the future.

The aim is to improve reception conditions in regions of origin and to transfer refugee status determination procedures from Europe to those regions. Those persons granted asylum could then be allowed to travel to Europe in an orderly manner.

The dangers of a regional solution

A striking shortcoming in both the Demos / openDemocracy and the governmental proposals is the lack of awareness of the actual human rights environment and quality of asylum in most countries that host refugees in the developing world. Moreover, these proposals say little about recent experiences in processing refugee claims in regions of refugee origin; and they are silent about the ethical and political implications of shifting more of the asylum burden from wealthy and stable western states to poor and unstable states in regions of refugee origin.

To ignore what is happening in these regions not only risks future policy failure but also places refugees and asylum-seekers in great danger. The extremely poor human rights conditions in regions of origin became abundantly clear to us in late 2001 and early 2002, when we participated in a trans-Atlantic research project for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and the US Committee for Refugees (USCR).

For this project, we visited several regions of refugee origin (Kenya, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon), focusing on the protection needs of Iraqis and Somalis – two national groups heavily represented in the asylum case loads in the UK and the European Union (EU) in general. We found conditions for carrying out refugee processing and resettlement which were barely permissible by international standards.

This research also clearly illustrated how regionalisation would in itself be dangerous and dehumanising for refugees and asylum-seekers alike. We interviewed refugees who complained that inadequate security in their countries of first asylum was their greatest concern. The human rights records of these countries are poor. Physical harassment and detention, including at the hands of police and security forces, and deportation to countries where refugees risk persecution, occur on a regular basis. Corruption is rampant.

In their countries of first asylum, refugees face serious economic and social deprivations. 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.

How will the vulnerable be protected?

Any regionalisation proposals coming from European states would have to operate within the framework set out in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This provision categorically forbids European states from returning individuals from their territory to states where the individual would be subjected to torture, or other cruel or degrading treatment.

A detailed ECRE-USCR report resulted from our research (Responding to the asylum and access challenge: an agenda for comprehensive engagement in protracted refugee situations, April 2003). This found that conditions in the Horn of Africa, East Africa, Turkey and the Middle East fall well below any standard that could satisfy a European or UK court that the human rights of those removed from Europe were not being abused by the proposed scheme.

Most regionalisation proposals also identify a central role for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the administration and management of the ‘protection areas’, investing it with a central responsibility in processing the asylum claims of individuals returned to these areas from Europe.

A USCR press release late last year (Funding crisis in refugee assistance: impact on refugees, 20 November 2002) illustrated how UNHCR is already overstretched and understaffed in those regions where refugees are concentrated.

Increasingly, UNHCR is unable to carry out protection, assistance and further activities in pursuit of durable solutions for refugees in regions of origin. The number of protection officers posted to refugee-populated areas has been significantly reduced. Food assistance to refugees who are restricted to camps and completely dependent on aid has been reduced to dangerously low levels.

Moreover, voluntary repatriation and resettlement plans have been cancelled due to insufficient funding, while programmes aimed at promoting local integration through development initiatives have not proceeded past the planning and piloting stage. Given its limited resources and shortage of staff in these regions, it is increasingly unlikely that UNHCR will be able to provide a protected environment for asylum seekers returned under these sorts of regionalisation arrangements.

People flow: going underground?

Even if the practical and principled shortcomings of regionalisation proposals could be overcome and they were enacted in their current form, there is little evidence that the new approach would achieve the desired outcome of reducing the number of illegal entries into Europe.

Programmes that forcibly return asylum-seekers to regions of origin would not reduce the desire of those who wish nevertheless to get into Europe. Such programmes would serve, rather, only to discourage migrants from registering with the authorities upon arrival. It would drive illegal migrants further underground, and further away from the limited monitoring capacity of national authorities.

The current conditions in refugee camps in Africa and Asia make it likely that protected areas would also act as a magnet for the very smugglers and criminal elements that these proposals seek to combat. Events of the past fifteen years demonstrate that smugglers are able rapidly to adapt to changes in entry opportunities.

As legal opportunities to gain access to the protection and prosperity of Europe have been closed down, the services of smugglers have become more highly valued. There is little evidence that regionalisation will put an end to the smuggling trade. On the contrary, it is likely to drive more desperate and vulnerable people into the arms of smugglers.

The path to improvement

The focus of any proposal to improve asylum policy, rather than on international transit centres or protected zones, should have two key aims.

The first aim must be to provide effective protection in regions of refugee origin. This requires comprehensive solutions to protracted refugee situations. Such a holistic approach would ensure effective protection in the region of origin, thereby diminishing the need for individuals to migrate to Europe to seek such protection; it would be structured around managed comprehensive responses, thereby ensuring the predictability sought by European states; and it would work towards the comprehensive solution of protracted refugee situations, thereby contributing both to the protection of refugees and the legitimate concerns of countries of first asylum.

The second aim must be to improve conditions of reception in countries of asylum. For even if the above comprehensive responses to protracted refugee situations resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of people seeking to enter Europe, it would be unrealistic to expect a halt altogether. EU states must therefore continue to strengthen their capacity to fulfil their legal and moral obligations to treat asylum applications in a fair and effective manner.

If at all possible, the EU and its member states, as well as other countries, should tackle directly the human rights abuses and violence that cause refugee flight, so that people will not feel compelled to flee their homes. But in situations where policies addressing root causes fail, or where conditions of reception and protection in host states in regions of origin are unacceptable, EU states should be prepared to support refugee flight and to offer asylum to victims of persecution and violence. Under such conditions, asylum becomes the ultimate human right.

This is an edited version of part of an article the authors wrote for International Affairs (May 2003).

About the authors

James Milner is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University and a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

James Milner est professeur associé de sciences politiques à l’université de Carleton et associé de recherche au Centre d’études sur les réfugiés de l’université d’Oxford.

James Milner es profesor asociado de Ciencia Política en la Universidad de Carleton e investigador asociado en el Centro de Estudios sobre Refugiados de la Universidad de Oxford.

Gil Loescher wrote a column for oD with Arthur Helton on refugees. He was gravely wounded in the attack on the UN in Iraq in 2003 and Arthur was killed. Gil's account is here


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