Refugee groups condemn safe havens for Kurds

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The Independent Online
EU ministers are to discuss plans to use more safe havens for Kurds fleeing persecution in Turkey and northern Iraq. Refugee organisations accuse the states of "rank hypocrisy". Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, looks at the controversy.

The idea, to be discussed by home affairs and justice minister in Birmingham today is to look at the use of what they call "safe areas" in Iraq and Turkey to house Kurds afraid of persecution.

Although such havens already exist, ministers will consider whether more use can be made of them to deal with a recent influx of refugees. About 2,000 Kurds arrived in Italy earlier this month, prompting alarm among countries like Germany and Austria, the refugees' likely destination.

A 47-point "action plan" before the ministers, which has been drawn up by British officials as part of the British presidency of the European Union, talks of developing a "regional approach to protection in appropriate cases" and the "possibility of identifying safe areas within the region of origin."

News of the plan, which is effectively a revitalisation of John Major's much-criticised safe-haven approach, was strongly condemned by refugee groups. They said that until recently member states had classified Kurds as economic migrants who needed to be sent back to their own countries. "The cat is out of the bag," said Nick Hardwick, director of the United Kingdom's Refugee Council. "You do not need a safe area for economic migrants."

It was clear, he said, that EU members were not bothered whether the Kurds were refugees or economic migrants as long as they were not in Europe. "The last place [the Kurds] want to go back to is a safe haven."

Mr Hardwick said that while Turkey had been denied EU membership because of its human rights record, member states were happy to co-operate with Turkey in arranging areas for the Kurds to stay. "The whole thing reeks of hypocrisy," said Mr Hardwick, who urged the British government, which is hosting the two day meeting of justice ministers, to show humane leadership on the issue.

British officials sought to play down the practicality of the proposals, saying the chances of them being set up were low. But one admitted: "We feel that [the discussion] is something we have to do."

Officials also point out that the UK is not affected by Kurdish immigration and, but is acting as "honest brokers" on the issue during its presidency.