Letter: Flexibility towards the asylum seekers

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Sir: The complacent response of Charles Wardle, the Home Office Minister, to your report and leading article about his department's expulsion of asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia (letter, 13 August) betrays the Government's lack of enthusiasm for its obligations towards refugees.

In normal circumstances, removals under the so-called 'safe third country' rule are in accordance with international law and practice, and the legality of the 36 removals is not at issue. It is the morality of the Home Office's action that we and others question.

For these are patently not normal circumstances. The refugee crisis arising from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia - the largest in Europe since the Second World War - demands an exceptional response. That is why the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which currently has the unenviable task of trying to resolve the crisis, has urged all governments to act in 'a spirit of international burden-sharing'.

To this end, UNHCR has asked the British government to be 'more flexible in the application of its asylum rules' and, in particular, to 'refrain altogether' from third country removals. Given the magnitude of the crisis, and the heavy burden currently being borne by countries such as Austria, Germany and Hungary, compliance with this request would appear to be the very least that Britain can do to assist UNHCR in its task.

It is intriguing that Mr Wardle should seek credit for the fact that Britain 'is the only EC country not to have a visa regime against any of the republics' (not true - Denmark has no visa regime), for by doing so he implicitly suggests that such visa regimes obstruct refugees from gaining access to countries where they can seek asylum - as indeed we believe they do. In the past, when we have criticised Britain's imposition of visa regimes on refugee-producing countries such as Somalia, Mr Wardle has fervently argued that visa regimes have no detrimental effect on refugees. It would therefore seem that Mr Wardle simultaneously holds two conflicting views, and that he blithely expresses whichever is the most convenient at the time.

If Mr Wardle's statement that the Home Office 'will not make third country removals when an applicant has merely transitted through other countries' represents a genuine shift in policy, then that is a welcome step in the right direction. But it is by no means enough. Ministers must still explain how sending people back to countries where they have spent days, weeks or even months en route to Britain contributes to the international community's effort to resolve the crisis.

Yours faithfully,


Refugee Officer

Amnesty International

London, EC1