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Amnesty calls on Europe to offer asylum

Amnesty International yesterday called on the governments of Europe to fulfil their obligations and offer asylum to refugees fleeing the violence and chaos in Albania.

The human-rights organisation, which was launching a campaign to highlight the world refugee crisis, talked of the thousands of people attempting to leave Albania daily adding to the 15 million already classified as refugees in different parts of the world.

Amnesty said that while some European countries have been generous in the past, many are increasingly reluctant to honour international conventions. Such countries were making use of a "new battery of techniques" which are designed to keep refugees at bay.

The use of these techniques, which seek to pass the problem on to other countries or which grant refugees only temporary safety, mean that "countless people never get a real chance to escape from torture or death-threats, or else they are sent back to countries where they run a real risk of getting thrown in jail or being handed over to executioners".

The organisation cited several examples of refugees who had been returned, against their will, to the country where they had already suffered persecution or violence. In one case, a woman from Zaire - where an estimated 700,000 refugees are currently trying to flee a civil war - sought asylum in Sweden after escaping from a military prison.

Although she had been tortured, the Swedish authorities rejected the woman's claim on several grounds, including their view that as Zaire's president did not control the military, her torture by soldiers did not constitute state persecution. The organisation added that the new, restrictive approach adopted by many countries included the application of harsh asylum criteria, the forcible repatriation of refugees and the fining of airlines and shipping companies for carrying people without valid travel documents.

The restriction on refugees was often justified on the grounds of economic difficulties, anti-immigrant attitudes or burgeoning xenophobia, but in some cases the new approach to the refugee crisis amounted to a "callous disregard" for human life and suffering, Amnesty said.

It added that "the increasingly restrictive approach that more and more governments take toward refugees makes a mockery of their international and national obligations".

In a series of statements, booklets and reports issued yesterday, Amnesty fingered a number of countries as guilty of what it perceived as a growing hostility toward refugees.

In Britain, measures such as the prolonged detention of asylum-seekers, the Carriers Liability Act, the "white list" of countries (where no serious risk is considered to exist) and restrictions on legal aid and welfare support amounted to barriers to entry. Denmark and Norway, however, were praised by the organisation for their response to refugees from Bosnia in particular.

Amnesty called on the international community to re- dedicate itself to the principles of the 1951 United Nations convention on the status of refugees. The convention includes the frequently ignored tenet that refugees should not be forcibly returned to a country where the applicant's life or freedom could be at risk. Individually, governments should do more to publicise the plight of refugees, set up specialised bodies to deal with applications for asylum, refrain from penalising refugees for illegal entry and provide safe accommodation and adequate subsistence allowances while asylum applications can be considered.

Amnesty also called for an urgent review of funding provisions for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

A full report on the refugee crisis will be published in June, a spokesman for Amnesty said yesterday.

The British Red Cross yesterday launched an appeal to take food, medicine and water to Albania, which is now virtually cut off from outside supply lines. Officials from the Albanian arm of the charity estimate that more than 250,000 people are in need of food and medicine. Donations can be made by telephoning 0171 201 5020.