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The East: Rights Advocates Fear Consequences Of Western Border Controls

  • Kitty McKinsey

Vienna, 21 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As the countries within the European Union that make up so-called "Schengenland" tighten their borders to keep out illegal migrants, human rights workers worry that a new "Iron Curtain" is being erected on the continent.

They say it divides the Schengen countries where there is free movement of people -- Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain, as well as new members Austria and Italy -- from the eastern part of Europe.

Because anyone who passes into one of the Schengen countries -- legally or illegally -- can then travel to the rest with no further passport controls, countries like Austria and Italy have come under great pressure to tighten up their borders, which are now the external borders of Schengenland.

This means making it harder for Third World refugees and would-be immigrants to pass through countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary into the "Schengenland" part of the European Union.

Human rights organizations recognize the right of all countries to control their borders and guard against illegal immigration. But Amnesty International, and the Austrian charity Caritas, which works with refugees and asylum seekers, fear Schengenland's tighter borders will keep out legitimate refugees because they have fewer possibilities to come into these countries legally -- and are subject to expulsion if they enter illegally.

Gabriele Juen, spokeswoman for Amnesty International in Vienna told RFE/RL in an interview last week that her organization is afraid that "people who are facing severe human rights violations like torture, arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial executions, political murder or even the death penalty, might not find security in a country like Austria, which claims for itself to be one of the most human-rights respecting (countries) in the world."

Those fleeing human rights violations in their own country, Juen says, are usually not on good enough terms with their own governments to get passports so they can then apply for a visa to travel to Austria where they intend to seek asylum.

These people in need of genuine asylum are therefore forced to turn to illegal human smuggling rings, but have no guarantee that their request for asylum will be honored if they actually reach Austria. Juen adds: "We fear that many people who are in need of protection will not receive this protection in the European Union, especially not in the Schengen countries which claim to be the world powers as far as it comes to human rights."

Christa Kleiner, director of Caritas in Vienna, said she is alarmed that Austria is sending out the message that it is protecting its borders ever more diligently. She puts it this way: "this is a threat for people seeking asylum -- maybe that's the effect that the government wants to create."

The threatening attitude towards potential refugees has also been evident in Austria's use of military conscripts to beef up border patrols on the Hungarian border.

Kleiner at Caritas says "too much power is given to these young boys to decide about refugees." She says that a military conscript's first thought is to send an illegal border-crosser back, rather than to regard his fractured German -- "Kurd, Turkey, boom-boom, refugee," as a legitimate request for political asylum.

Manfred Matzka, director general of Austria's Interior Ministry which controls the borders, says conscripts are no longer used in positions where they will come into contact with potential asylum seekers. He says the military conscripts' role on the borders is limited to technical support for the border guards -- such as driving cars and operating telecommunications equipment.

Out of concern for the rights of legitimate refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) gives special training to Austrian border guards to be more sensitive to the plight of those who need protection.

"Border guards don't normally deal with refugees," says Melita Sunjic, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Vienna. "All of a sudden they meet these people and they don't know legally and psychologically how to handle the problem."

Human rights activists are concerned that at the beginning of this year Austria changed its asylum procedures. Those whose asylum requests are rejected now have only two days -- instead of the previously-allowed two weeks -- to appeal.

However, they are encouraged that Austria has also instituted an independent review body that will rule on asylum applications rejected by the Interior Ministry. Human rights groups were critical that in the past the Interior Ministry was also the only avenue of appeal against its own rulings.

But what is most needed is a change in attitude of people in Schengenland towards refugees from Third World countries, particularly following the widespread recent fears in Northern Europe of a so-called invasion of Kurds into their territory through Italy.

Says Sunjic at the UNHCR: "We perceive these people as a threat, not as people who are threatened themselves." She says that rather than trying to help these poor people who have given their life savings over to human smugglers, "we reject them as Europeans and we say 'oh, kick them out'."

Sunjic concludes: "There are legal provisions for refugees to be able to come in, but I think what we need to work on is the attitude of the people now."