E Europe moves to keep out refugees: New German rules raise fears

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The Independent Online
AT A TIME when border controls are easing in Western Europe, new barriers are going up in the East.

Within the next few months would- be visitors to Poland from Romania, Bulgaria and almost all of the former Soviet Union will only be allowed in if they can produce an officially registered invitation from a Polish citizen.

They will find it even harder to get into the Czech Republic, where strict visa rules are being drawn up for Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians and anyone fleeing from former Yugoslavia.

In Prague and Warsaw, officials justify what they are doing on the grounds of self-defence. They say imminent changes to Germany's liberal asylum laws could result in their countries being saddled with tens of thousands of mainly economic refugees. And, given their economic problems, they are not in a position to deal with such an influx.

True enough. But at the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the fear is that the new restrictions could mean that many genuine victims of political, religious or racial persecution will find themselves effectively shut out of Europe.

'In the rush to set up new barriers to economic migrants . . . many legitimate applicants for asylum will be hit,' says Ron Redmond of the UNHCR. 'We can understand the concern of the governments in question, but there is a great danger that the basic right to asylum could be jeopardised.'

Under the proposed changes to the German constitution, asylum-seekers crossing into the country from what is considered a 'safe' neighbouring country (a fellow signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention) will be promptly returned rather than, as at present, being allowed to stay several years while their applications are processed.

With more than half of the 440,000 asylum-seekers to Germany last year crossing from Poland and the Czech Republic, concern at the change is most acute in those two countries. But alarm bells are also ringing in Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia. At a meeting in Prague earlier this week, all six countries agreed to work towards harmonising their immigration regulations and clamping down on organisations that smuggle people across their borders. And each country is planning to strengthen its border controls against the flow of immigrants to the West.

According to UNHCR officials, there is a historic irony in the appearance of so many new barriers in Central and Eastern Europe. When the agency was set up in 1951, its main task was to help refugees fleeing to the West from what was then the Communist East.

'Many people from these countries benefited from the right to asylum,' says Mr Redmond. 'There was never any problem settling people who were escaping from Communism - it was seen as a propaganda victory. But since 1989 the welcome mat has been gradually pulled away. Now the doors are slamming shut.'