Europe to slam door on asylum-seekers

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European leaders are tomorrow expected to agree harsh new barriers designed to restrict the rights of refugees to seek protection on European soil, 45 years after the Geneva Conventions enshrined the rights of refugees.

People fleeing civil wars, or seeking refuge from insurgent groups who are not under state control, will no longer have the right to claim asylum, according to a confidential text to be agreed by European Union justice ministers. Member states are expected to grant themselves new powers to send back asylum seekers, including those who have proved their status as genuine refugees.

The new measures, in line with Britain's new tough stance on asylum, represent the most serious attempt yet by EU member states to halt the flow of asylum seekers and immigrants into Europe. UN officials and human rights bodies fear that the measures will prevent genuine refugees from reaching Europe. They say Europe is now signalling that it is determined to speed up repatriation of unwanted "foreigners".

Had the measures been taken five years ago it is doubtful whether many refugees from the former Yugoslavia - often defined as a civil war - would have had the automatic right to claim asylum. And those fleeing persecution from dissident groups in Algeria could not now argue that they are fleeing persecution of the "state".

Concern about the measures has been heightened by the secrecy in which they have been drawn up. The draft Council Act, to be presented for a vote today, has been drawn up behind closed doors by the K4 committee of senior European officials, with no meaningful consultation from the European Parliament or human rights bodies.

"The text severely limits the rights of refugees under the existing convention and confirms the European tendency to take the most restrictive interpretation," said Johannes Van de Klaauw, of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Brussels.

The new measure is being agreed as a "joint action" which means it is not binding on member states. However, refugee bodies say it will now be used as the benchmark.

The 1951 Geneva Convention, agreed in the wake of massive refugee flows after the Second World War, states that asylum should be offered to anyone with a "well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

The question of whether or not persecution occurred in a civil war or other internal armed conflict in the country of origin was irrelevant to whether a refugee could claim asylum. The key question was whether the person had a "well founded fear" or persecution based on one of the tests in the definition.

The proposed new agreement, however, states: "Reference to a civil war or internal or generalised armed conflict and the dangers which it entails is not in itself sufficient to warrant the grant of refugee status."

Although it has been generally accepted that persecution often results from the actions of a state, the Geneva Conventions do not refer specifically to action by a state or state authority. Nowadays refugees are increasingly fleeing persecution from armed militias or insurgent groups involved in internal conflicts. The UNHCR strongly warned European member states against limiting the concept of "persecution" to those fleeing actions by states.

However, the new draft agreement states: "Persecution is generally the act of a State organ. Persecution by "third parties" can only be recognised by Europe if it is "encouraged or permitted by those authorities".

For the first time since 1951, Europe is now granting itself powers to send people classified as genuine refugees back to the country they came from, albeit to a "safer" part of that country. If it is decided that the person can find "effective protection" in another part of his country of origin he can be sent back there, states the draft agreement.

Refugee agencies argue that such repatriation runs very high risks, and should certainly not be carried out if the person concerned fled state torture. The draft agreement contains no such safeguards.