Human rights groups say scheme may be unlawful

Tony Blair received a last-minute plea yesterday to abandon his plans for "regional protection zones" in the Third World to vet asylum-seekers who want to come to Europe.

In a joint letter to the Prime Minister, timed to coincide with World Refugee Day, 12 refugee and human rights groups protested the proposal was unlawful, unworkable and could aggravate the asylum problem that is preoccupying politicians.

European leaders began discussing the British initiative last night in Greece. The Home Office insisted there would be no breakthrough at the meeting, where Germany, Sweden and the European Commission will air their reservations.

But, with the backing of many EU nations and of Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, agreement for the plan is likely to be reached by late summer.

Britain's aim is to establish the first zone, on a pilot basis probably in the Horn of Africa to handle people displaced by the turmoil in Somalia and Ethiopia, by the end of the year.

But international leaders face practical and legal headaches before the first barbed wire is put up and the first accommodation blocks constructed. They need to establish whose law will run in the camps, how the human rights of refugees can be guaranteed and how they will be funded. Details of how claims will be processed, how legal advice will be provided for claimants and whether they will be free to come and go are all still unclear. It is also unclear whether refugees who arrive in the West would be sent to the centres for "processing" or whether the centres would only handle people who claim asylum in their home regions.

The vast majority of the world's refugees do not reach the West but are housed in giant temporary camps near the war zones they are fleeing.

Pakistan is home to Afghans and Kurds from Iran and Iraq; Tanzania hosts people from Rwanda and Burundi escaping the ethnic genocide in their countries; Somalis and Sudanese have been housed in neighbouring Ethiopia; Palestinians have lived for years in Jordan and Lebanon.

The conditions in many of their camps have fallen far short of the standards acceptable to European nations attempting to run their own refugee centres in Third World countries. Refugees in camps in Africa have faced the threat of armed attack, rape and forced conscription into local militias.

Critics of the proposals, including the Refugee Council and Amnesty International, argue such conditions would be certain to breach the European Convention of Human Rights. Special protection would also have to be guaranteed for any torture victims.

However, the critics also point out that to guarantee refugees' safety and comfort could create a perverse "pull factor" encouraging people in poverty-stricken areas to head for the camps.

In their letter to Mr Blair, the refugee groups also warned that moving thousands of asylum-seekers against their would be "logistically difficult and hugely expensive".

Condemning the proposals as "legally problematic, unworkable and prohibitively expensive," they say: "The proposals appear to involve the large-scale and long-term detention of people who appear to have committed no crime."

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