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UN: 'Fortress Europe' Mentality Against Refugees Causes Concern

The UN's high commissioners for refugees and human rights have expressed alarm over a growing "fortress Europe" mentality that aims to reduce the flow of asylum seekers. The two UN officials have called on European leaders to respect international conventions asserting the right to asylum. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 7 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- UN authorities responsible for refugee and human rights issues are urging European leaders to revive their commitment to protecting the rights of asylum seekers.

In separate news conferences, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, condemned the trend toward tightening borders against those fleeing persecution.

Lubbers said in a Brussels news conference yesterday that the European Union needs to spend more money on handling refugee matters. He said it should also help its neighbors in Eastern Europe cope with their refugee problems.

Robinson told reporters at UN headquarters in New York yesterday that European leaders have to meet their responsibility to people fleeing hardship and persecution.

"I think it's a time when we need to reinforce the framework which has been built up for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, where we need to reinforce national law, national protection, and a whole education about respect."

Robinson said the West European trend to reducing immigration of all types comes at a time when many of its nations are experiencing declining populations. She said it makes sense for EU countries to have better-managed migration policies to satisfy labor needs as well as humanitarian responsibilities.

But other rights officials are concerned that the whole question of the right to asylum is being neglected amid concern over increasing immigration pressure. The director of refugee policy at Human Rights Watch, Rachel Reilly, told RFE/RL that many of the asylum seekers reaching Europe these days have legitimate reasons for fleeing their homelands.

"Human trafficking and human smuggling are clearly abusive, entailing human rights violations, and there needs to be efforts to curb them. But governments need to look at why people are leaving their country and why they're making use of those means of travelling and not just have a blanket prohibition."

Both Reilly and human rights commissioner Robinson were critical of a British proposal yesterday to limit the number of immigrants in EU states. The British Home Secretary Jack Straw said a number of asylum seekers were abusing the process and proposed a requirement that they apply for refugee status before reaching EU states.

The UN refugee agency said Britain last year became the main destination for asylum seekers, with more than 75,000 applications. There were nearly 400,000 applications overall in the EU and many of the asylum seekers came from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia.

The 1951 Convention on Refugees says no country shall reject a person who has a legitimate fear of persecution in his or her home country. Straw says this convention has been circumvented by a number of people looking for better economic conditions.

But Reilly of Human Rights Watch condemned what she said was a fear campaign being conducted by politicians and the media in Britain.

"There are real fear tactics being used which is very irresponsible because that also feeds into attitudes of xenophobia and racism."

The UN's Robinson called for political leadership to avoid exploiting the immigration issue during local and general elections in Europe. She said she regretted the issue has grown so prominent in Europe in recent years and raised concern that the continent had not learned its lessons from the wars of the 20th century.

"Unfortunately, we have seen again genocide. We have seen terrible ethnic cleansing. And we can see the rise of Nazi-like movements, particularly among youth in many European countries."

Europe's migration policies will be one of the main topics raised at an international conference against racism, xenophobia, and intolerance, to be held in South Africa in late August and early September. Robinson has begun to raise publicity for the conference, which she says will aim to tackle one of the roots of many of the world's conflicts.

Other topics to be raised at the conference include discrimination against indigenous people and intolerance towards minorities. The conference, she says, will seek to make governments fully aware of their responsibility to systematically combat discrimination of all kinds.

A series of regional meetings have been held to set the conference's agenda and the last will take place from 19 February to 21 February in Tehran. A main feature of these meetings is the participation of regional non-governmental groups. Despite Iran's own poor human rights record, Robinson says, she expects the Iranian government to honor the UN's call for NGO participation.

"There have been discussions with the host country Iran, and it's clear that Iran recognizes that this is a conference where NGOs must be able to participate fully. It will be, I think, culturally quite an interesting conference from that point of view."

Robinson said she sees the conference later this year in South Africa as a kind of catharsis in which victims of discrimination air their grievances. She said nations which have in the past allowed slavery and other abuses can use the conference to begin a new century committed to tolerance and valuing diversity.