Leading Article: Tackling the refugee problem at source

Click to follow
MONTH by month, western Europe comes nearer to pulling up the drawbridge on all those who seek to enter. As this relentlessly negative agenda is enacted, the distinction between genuine asylum seekers, refugees from war zones and economic migrants becomes increasingly blurred. With unemployment at well over 10 per cent in most western European countries, present levels of immigration have become politically unsustainable. But it would be a betrayal of the values that Europe claims to represent if its governments allowed themselves to be driven by the forces of xenophobia and neo-fascism.

Inevitable though it had become, it is hard to see Wednesday's vote in the Bundestag in any other light: by 521 to 132 its members voted to load with ifs and buts Germany's constitutional provision that 'persons persecuted on political grounds shall enjoy the right of asylum'. In similar spirit, EC ministers meet next week in Copenhagen to tighten rules on asylum-seeking in member states, and to co-ordinate policy on exclusion and repatriation measures.

Across Europe, some essential truths need to be kept in mind. One is that most refugees are people without choices. They do not want to leave the towns, villages or countryside in which they were raised. They feel driven to it. Most want to return if they possibly can. Europe is far from being uniquely burdened by their presence. On the contrary, of the world's estimated 18.8 million refugees (roughly doubled since the early Eighties), only 4.4 milion are in Europe, and those figures include the internally displaced. It is poor countries that bear much the heaviest burden. In Jordan, one person in four is a refugee; in Malawi, one in 10. Many genuinely face persecution, summary arrest and execution or torture if they return to what was home. For many others, to return is to face a civil war and/or starvation.

In western Europe, pressure comes equally from the Third World and from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In Germany, the chief source countries are Romania and conflict-ridden parts of former Yugoslavia. But there is a danger that the displacement of people by the numerous conflicts in the Caucasus will soon begin to spread westwards. So far the strategy of EC member states seems to consist almost exclusively of agreements to return immigrants to the first 'safe' country through which they passed in transit. This policy will place a heavy burden on such countries as Poland and the Czech Republic, which must strive to repatriate those in question. Even if helped with the cost, these newly democratic countries have burdens enough without acting as buffer zones for the West.

It would be more constructive if greater attention were given to what makes people determined to emigrate. All too often it is some form of ethnic conflict - and the West has been ineffective enough in halting that in former Yugoslavia. But in Romania or Bulgaria it may be a sense of economic hopelessness: just six months in Germany would yield enough savings to buy a taxi or set up a small shop. Selective western assistance on the spot to set up small businesses might be cheaper than paying social security benefits to economic refugees.

Outside Europe there have been several success stories. Thanks to an international plan of action drawn up in 1989 and implemented by the UN High Commission for Refugees, the flow of boat people from Vietnam has been reduced to a trickle and there is now a substantial volume of voluntary returnees. In Central America, refugees are returning to Nicaragua and El Salvador with the help of resettlement programmes.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, a conflict that displaced millions of people has been superseded by the beginnings of democracy. Kabul apart, much of Afghanistan is now peaceful. But, as in so many countries torn by war, refugees are being prevented from returning by millions of landmines. It is through practical programmes of help, such as mine clearance, that western Europe will in the long term most effectively reduce the pressure on its own borders. To shrug its collective shoulders at the hopelessness of the world, while striving to clang shut its gates, is not just morally despicable but ultimately destined to failure.