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EU blocks citizens' right to claim asylum

European leaders have quietly agreed to write off 40 years of human rights laws by proposing that European citizens should no longer have the right to claim asylum in another European Union member state.

A paragraph drafted at the weekend Dublin summit suggests that EU governments now believe that no EU citizen will ever again be in need of asylum. The proposal was first made by Spain, which is angry that Belgium has offered refuge to alleged supporters of the Basque separatist movement, ETA. However, other governments appear to have adopted the plan with alacrity and intend to insert it into proposals for creating an "area of freedom justice and security" for European citizens.

Without any public consultation, the heads of government have instructed their officials working on the EU draft treaty to "establish it as a clear principle that no member state of the Union may apply for asylum in another member state, taking into account international treaties".

Human rights bodies and refugee groups, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have reacted with anger, complaining the EU intends to re-write the 1951 Geneva Convention, guaranteeing the rights of all asylum-seekers to present a case for refuge.

The convention defines a refugee as someone with a "well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds or race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

Although human rights bodies accept that cases of severe human rights violations within EU member states are rare, they warn that such violations do happen and political circumstances can swiftly change. The three Basques, whose cases are before the courts in Belgium, are the most recent examples of asylum-seeking between EU states. In one case a couple fled Spain after they were accused of giving shelter to Basque extremists - an accusation they denied. As recently as 1978 Britain was found guilty by the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg of inflicting "inhuman and degrading treatment" on prisoners held in Northern Ireland.

Amnesty International has recently produced highly critical reports on ill-treatment of individuals by security forces in Germany, France and Italy.

Concern about the EU plan has been heightened by parallel efforts in the United Nations to restrict the definition of refugees to exclude people deemed by a particular state to be "planning, inciting or funding terrorism".

The EU proposal is also viewed by groups monitoring European justice proposals as a further indication of the union's increasingly restrictive attitude towards asylum and immigration in general. For more than five years member states have been attempting to co-ordinate policy on asylum and immigration by establishing an ever tighter "ring fence" around the EU's external borders to prevent would-be refugees entering.

A series of measures have been agreed in outline, including a common visa list, and procedures for accepting refugees. The UNHCR and other groups have regularly complained that many of these measures have reduced the ability of asylum seekers to have their cases heard. For example the EU has developed the idea of a "safe third country", which means asylum seekers from countries deemed by the EU to be "safe" cannot make a claim.

Earlier this year the EU adopted a new restrictive definition of "refugee", to establish the principle that only individuals fleeing persecution from governments or state institutions could have a right to asylum in the EU. Amnesty believes the proposal is part of an EU drive to tighten barriers against all asylum seekers. "I am sure there is a policy to limit the possibility for people to seek asylum," said Brigitte Ernst of Amnesty.

The UNHCR believes that countries who have signed the Geneva Conventions, as all EU member have, cannot cordon off one set of countries saying the human rights provisions cannot apply there.

Leading article, page 11