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Europe: EU Seeks Unified Policy On Kurdish Refugees

Prague, 6 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Member states of the European Union are urgently seeking to unify their policies on Kurdish refugees in the wake of last week's arrival of some 1,200 mostly Turkish Kurds in Italy and the threat of many more turning up soon. But agreement will certainly not be easy to achieve: The problem of Kurdish immigrants involves the 15-nation group's already tattered relations with Turkey, on which there are widely divergent views within the EU, as well as differing individual members' refugee policies.

The Union will grapple with the Kurdish issue at two meetings this week. The first, tomorrow in Brussels, will bring together experts selected by the EU's Executive Commission from the nine EU member states that have signed the so-called Schengen agreement --Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. That accord, theoretically at least, abolishes internal border controls among adhering nations. Commission spokesmen describe tomorrow's gathering, called by the Dutch to discuss a coordinated policy towards the Kurdish refugees, as a "crisis meeting."

The second meeting, in Rome on Thursday, will be attended by top police officials from the six countries most directly concerned with the Kurdish problem --France, Germany, the Netherlands and Greece as well as Turkey and host nation Italy. Apart from Turkey, all subscribe, along with 10 other West European states, to the Schengen agreement, named after a Luxembourg town where it was first agreed upon. (But note that, confusingly, the 15 Schengen accord signers do not include six EU members --including island nations Britain and Ireland-- while they do include non-EU states such as Iceland.) They, too, will try to come up with a coordinated action plan.

Both meetings will take place after strongly conflicting public statements made in the past few days by participating nations. Turkey yesterday called the Kurdish refugee flow a criminal issue --in the words of a Foreign Ministry spokesman (Sermet Atacanli), "purely a criminal act involving criminal elements"-- and today stepped up its naval surveillance to prevent further emigration. But none of the Schengen signatories have agreed. They say that the emigration of repressed Kurds from the impoverished southeastern area of Turkey is either a "political (one) involving human and minority rights"--a phrase used yesterday by a German Foreign Ministry spokesman (Martin Erdmann)-- or economically motivated.

But that is about all the nine Schengen participants agree on. Italy, which signed the accord only three months ago, says that it is ready to provide the Kurds with political asylum. In the words of President Luigi Scalfaro last week, his country's arms are "wide open" to Kurds seeking refuge. It's just that openness which worries other EU Schengen nations, particularly Germany, with the largest Kurdish resident community in the EU, estimated at about 700,000.

Yesterday, German Interior Minister Manfred Kanther called on both Italy and Greece, as well as Turkey, to strictly patrol their ports and said that Italy should be watching trains and roads in case smugglers bring additional Kurdish immigrants through the Balkans --and today, 18 Kurds were detained by Albanian police at the country's southern border with Greece. Also yesterday, Austria and France announced measures to strengthen their border patrols with other Schengen nations. All these actions have raised renewed and serious questions about EU states' commitment to a passport-free Union, although officials in Brussels deny the Kurdish exodus threatens the Schengen accord. Rather, one said yesterday, Schengen "provides the basis for doing (something about the problem) whereas before there was nothing."

None of these disagreements are likely to help the fleeing Kurds, most of whom are thought to want to reach relatives in the Netherlands and Sweden as well as Germany, the three EU nations with the biggest Turkish communities. More than likely, however, the new Kurdish refugee flow will trigger at least a temporary toughening of border controls in most of the EU members that have signed Schengen.