Europe shuts out political refugees

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WESTERN Europe is in the process of being declared off-limits for political refugees. It is being done through an increasingly strict interpretation of international asylum rules allowing governments to return asylum-seekers to the countries they pass through, and by heavy fines on airlines which accept passengers - even those seeking political asylum - without adequate visas.

'The result,' said a senior official of the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva yesterday, 'is that airline ticket collectors are now deciding the fate of tens of thousands of people who are genuinely in need of political asylum. In a few years it will be virtually impossible for people in need of protection to seek asylum in Europe.'

At the same time the numbers of asylum-seekers being expelled have increased dramatically as the richest European countries have set up what amounts to a cordon sanitaire of 'safe' countries around them to which refugees can readily be returned. Eastern European countries, with no tradition in handling political asylum cases, have now become vast clearing centres for tens of thousands of people fleeing oppression or seeking to improve their lives.

The draconian policies against political refugees - most of whom are fleeing for their lives - led to a decrease in the numbers of people seeking refuge in seven European countries last year, one of the most turbulent in recent memory in Europe.

The harsh new policies against people fleeing death, torture and imprisonment come as an unfortunate side- effect of the huge increase in the refugees flooding into Europe, many of them simply seeking an escape from poverty in their own countries, and the difficulties faced in screening out these economic migrants.

As a sop towards those fleeing the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the European Community decided this week to grant temporary protection to the 60,000 Balkan refugees on EC soil. But for the other people targeted because of their political beliefs in other parts of the globe, there is an increasingly cold shoulder, justified by high unemployment in most countries.

The number of refugees trying to get into Europe reached 700,000 last year according to the Geneva-based Intergovernmental Consultation on Refugees, a UN body, and some 80 per cent of those were not genuine refugees, officials say.

The countries that proved most adept at slamming the door on political refugees were Britain, France, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Greece and the Netherlands.

By banning those who first passed through another 'safe' country, as permitted under the 1951 United Nations convention, these countries are ensuring that the only way a political refugee can get in is by air. That avenue has also been closed by the policy of imposing fines of up to pounds 15,000 on airlines that accept passengers without fully checking their travel documents and visas.

The impact of the strict new policy is most apparent in Britain where the numbers of asylum-seekers decreased by nearly 50 per cent from 44,753 in 1991 to 24,600 last year, according to the European Consultation on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE,) a non-governmental organisation.

Austria, which borders the former Yugoslavia, managed to reduce asylum applications from 27,306 in 1991 to 16,238 last year; in France, where even tougher restrictions were announced this week, the numbers seeking asylum fell from 46,545 in 1991 to 28,873 last year. Other European countries, like Germany, which saw huge increases in the numbers of unwanted refugees, have introduced savage restrictions on immigration.

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