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Paris urges harsh curbs on refugees

France is calling on its European partners to adopt draconian new asylum restrictions to block any exodus of Algerian refugees. UN officials and human rights experts fear that the proposed measure could lead to asylum- seekers being returned to torture and persecution in their countries of origin.

The French proposals call for a re-examination by the European Union of historic human rights safeguards for refugees agreed under the 1951 Geneva Convention, which states that asylum should be offered to anyone with a "well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion". The convention was agreed in the wake of massive refugee flows after the Second World War.

France wants all EU states to agree a severely limited version of the UN definition of a refugee, so that only people suffering persecution from organs of state should have the right to asylum. Those claiming persecution by other factions in a country, or by insurgent groups, would not be helped.

In the case of Algeria, this would mean that nobody fleeing torture or death at the hand of Islamic insurgents would be deemed to have the right of asylum in France. The French want other member states to adopt the same measure. Victims of other armed opposition groups throughout the world would also be refused safe haven. The proposal, which is expected to be voted on by EU interior ministers in June, was discussed this week behind closed doors during a meeting in Paris of interior ministry officials from the member states.

The proposal has caused outrage at the European Parliament, which complains that such plans are being laid in secret and with no public consultation. "If we are to be seen as a decent civilised part of the world, we should obey international standards on human rights. Instead we are continuing to build a wall around Europe," said Hedy D'Ancona, a Dutch MEP.

The French move comes amid growing fears in France about the spiralling violence in its former colony. About 300 Algerians are applying for asylum each month, of which only on 2 per cent are granted it. Others are given temporary permission to remain, with no legal rights.

France, which currently holds the EU presidency, has been in a strong position to promote the plan, winning backing from other member states who have all been seeking to erect new barriers against refugees.

Under the guise of "harmonising" procedures, the EU has sought to impose progressively more restrictive asylum measures. Under discussion is a common EU visa, and a common list of countries whose citizens would need a visa to enter the EU. The 15 are also discussing how to harmonise procedures at external borders.

Britain, which takes as restrictive view of the right to asylum as France, has nevertheless expressed reservations about the French move, apparently on the grounds that it hands over more decision-making power to the EU, reducing the rights of domestic courts to decide their own refugee cases.