Rich nations should face up to their obligations to desperate refugees

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The Independent Online

It should be obvious that neither closing the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais nor deporting the boatload of Afghan asylum-seekers to Nauru and New Zealand is going to solve the world-wide problem of people fleeing or claiming to flee persecution.

Even if Britain and Australia adopted a more compassionate approach and met their responsibilities, there would still be people clinging to unseaworthy boats, suffocating in containers and dying in the undercarriage bays of jumbo jets.

There is no doubt, however, that such desperation underlines the need for all the countries of the world, but especially rich nations such as Britain, to rethink their treatment of refugees. Jack Straw, when he was Home Secretary, called for the 1951 Geneva Convention, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, to be rewritten to take account of changes in international travel.

He had a point, although his motives were suspect and his proposals were flawed. He suggested drawing up a list of "safe" countries from which applications for asylum would be automatically rejected. That was not an attempt to update the principles of the Geneva Convention, but a contradiction of one of them, the right of each claim for refugee status to be considered on its merits. His other idea was worse, which was that applications for asylum should be processed before the applicant arrived in the country in which a safe haven was sought. Certainly the law of asylum has a Catch-22 quality, in that it is almost necessary to travel illegally, without papers, to prove that one is genuinely fleeing from persecution. But it should be obvious that if you are in fear of your life you can hardly apply for asylum in Britain by post and, when accepted, travel openly on your own passport.

The problem is that, as Erika Feller, an aide to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, put it, "with virtually no other migration path open from poor countries to rich ones, the Convention has been subjected to pressures which should be catered for by alternative migration management tools".

However, the resumption of legal economic migration around the world on a large scale is unlikely – although it would incidentally be in Britain's economic interest to allow limited immigration again. So the question is how best to relieve the pressures on the Geneva Convention – by rewriting it or by putting its principles into practice more consistently, fairly and efficiently?

Whatever needs to happen in the longer term, it is clearly essential that the recent speeding up of the handling of asylum applications in Britain be continued. The nightly game of cat and mouse played out at the French end of the Channel Tunnel also needs to be tackled at source, first by co-operation with France, and second at the European Union level.

At a higher level still, there should be a greater role for agencies of the UN, which would have to be better funded and supported by its richer members. Mr Straw's plan for out-of-country asylum applications might have been more convincing had Britain joined the 18 countries which are members of the UNHCR's resettlement programme. Despite its regrettable attitude to the unfortunate human cargo of the MV Tampa in the Indian Ocean, Australia is a member of that programme and accepts thousands of refugees for settlement, many from camps in Indonesia.

Mr Straw, now the Foreign Secretary, and his successor at the Home Office, David Blunkett, should start again. The principles of the Geneva Convention are still sound. What is needed is a new effort of international co-operation to agree how they should be implemented.