UN agency attacks asylum law

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The Independent Online
NEW European Community rules for immigration may lead to asylum-seekers being deprived of their rights under international law, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees fears.

The UNHCR had held back from a verdict on the resolutions agreed on Monday by EC interior ministers until it had analysed them in detail. It had sent a letter to Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, asking for changes to earlier drafts.

Yesterday, sources in the UNHCR said that some of these recommendations had been taken into account. But the organisation, charged with looking after the world's refugees, warned that others had not. The UNHCR is concerned that new accelerated procedures for sorting out manifestly unfounded claims will lead to refugees being repatriated when they have genuine claims.

The new procedures require that 'an application for asylum shall be regarded as manifestly unfounded (if) the claim is based on deliberate deception or is an abuse of asylum procedures'. But the UNHCR fears that recourse to accelerated procedures under these circumstances may not be appropriate, since refugees' false statements do not automatically invalidate their claims.

The refugee body is also worried about new rules on sending asylum-seekers back to countries that they have passed through on their way to the EC. - so-called 'third host countries'. It fears these will mean that asylum-seekers are shipped back to countries with inadequate asylum procedures, without the consent of the countries concerned. Asylum- seekers could end up in permanent 'orbit' around the EC, unable to find a home. This could also force countries to the east of the EC, just developing immigration and asylum regimes, to be tough for fear of becoming 'culs de sac' for refugees.

Some refugee officials said yesterday that there was continuing disagreement among EC countries over the new resolutions, some of which are legally binding. But British officials said it was highly unlikely that they would be amended. The UNHCR has a meeting scheduled with officials from EC states later this month.

Overall, the UNHCR has many good words to say about the British presidency of the EC and the way in which it has handled the refugee issue. It has been more open than other presidencies, allowed officials to see drafts before meetings and opened up slightly the secretive process of rule-making on immigration. But this does not absolve Britain of responsibility for those aspects of the new rules which could lead to legitimate asylum seekers being sent home, other rights activists say.