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EU: International Migrants Day Finds Europe Looking At Tougher Asylum Rules

Today is UN-declared International Migrants Day, dedicated to raising the awareness in host countries of migrant communities in their midst. In this report, RFE/RL uses the occasion to look at how prospects are changing for migrants who leave their countries to seek political asylum in Europe. Once Europe was one of the world's most certain havens for people fleeing human rights abuses at home. But today, many governments are deliberately tightening their asylum procedures because they say economic migrants routinely abuse the process to work in Europe illegally.

Prague, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European countries have traditionally been among the world's most generous in offering asylum to those fleeing political or religious persecution at home.

But today -- overwhelmed by increasing numbers of economic migrants who falsely claim to be refugees -- many European Union states are dramatically rethinking their asylum procedures. In many, the tougher attitude is in response to growing popular sentiment that the asylum process is routinely and easily abused at great cost to taxpayers and that the numbers of asylum seekers must be radically reduced.

One example is Britain. London now says its liberal asylum provisions -- which include giving financial support to asylum applicants while their cases are being decided -- have made the country a magnet for would-be migrants.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II restated her government's resolve to rethink its asylum laws in a speech marking the start of the country's legislative year last month.

"My government is committed to the maintenance of an effective asylum system. Legislation will therefore be brought forward," Queen Elizabeth said.

Her remarks come as Britain has seen the number of asylum seekers jump sharply in recent years. In 2002 -- the latest statistics available -- a record 110,700 people sought asylum in Britain, or 20 percent more than the year before. Of those asylum applicants, 34 percent were given asylum or "exceptional leave to remain," and 12 percent were deported. The majority remain in Britain as guests, while their cases move at a snail's pace through the British legal system or because they cannot be forcibly returned to home countries London regards as unsafe.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he wants to see the number of asylum seekers cut by half. This year, his government announced that asylum claims will automatically be rejected from seven so-called "safe countries." They are Albania, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, and Serbia and Montenegro.

The British move has worried many human rights organizations. Simon Taylor, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in London, says individuals with valid asylum claims can be overlooked when refugees are judged by their country of origin rather than their specific situation.

"We don't really like the idea of 'safe' country lists because we take the view that every case has to be looked at on its own particular merits. And a country that may be safe for one person may not be safe for another. What we do is ask countries to look at each individuals circumstances and case," Taylor said.

But what is happening in Britain is not unique. Across Europe, governments are responding to pressure from populist parties to tighten refugee laws.

In France, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy recently said that "the incredible laxity of [asylum procedures in] recent years has led to a rise in exasperation and racism" in his country. And in Switzerland, the leader of a party that successfully campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform this month took over responsibility for his country's asylum policy as the new justice minister.

The trend toward tougher asylum procedures comes despite recent statistics from the UNHCR that show the number of people seeking asylum across the European Union dropped 16 percent in the first half of this year. That is partly due to a fall in the number of refugees from Iraq. Asylum applications from other major countries of origin -- Turkey and Serbia and Montenegro -- also fell off this year, while applications from Russians, mostly fleeing Chechnya, increased.

Some observers say Europe's tougher attitudes on asylum are in part a response to a phenomenon that many populist parties find threatening: the modern mass migration of labor from poor areas of the globe toward richer ones. The migration, made possible by easy transportation, is creating growing communities of migrants in societies that need their labor but have yet to come to terms with their presence.

The UNHCR's Taylor says, "There is a perfectly natural reaction by governments to the far greater movement of people around the world, much of which is economic migration rather than migration caused by human rights abuse or conflict leading to refugees. And so the whole of the Western world is in a state of flux as countries come to terms with these new situations."

In an effort to better cope with migration, the EU states are increasingly seeking to develop common immigration policies and common standards for protecting genuine asylum seekers. But their efforts have been bedeviled by strong differences between member states over how they view refugees' rights.

Currently, each EU state chooses for itself which countries to accept asylum seekers from. The EU states' lists do not always correspond because their definitions differ regarding when a country is "safe" for refugees to return to.

In efforts to develop an EU-wide standard, London this year said the definition of what is "safe" should be flexible, enough to recognize that some countries may have certain regions to which people can be returned safely. But Sweden said any EU list needs to lay down strict criteria for what constitutes a safe home, such as a democratic system of government and the possibility of a fair trial.

The efforts to develop common standards are certain to continue in the months ahead.

At the same time, the EU has widely debated -- but failed to reach agreement upon -- a British proposal to operate "protection zones" near countries where there is turmoil likely to create outpourings of refugees. London, which has suggested the EU create the regional zones along with the UN refugee agency, says they would make it easier to return refugees to their homes later. London has also said that if a refugee crisis persists, asylum claims for Europe could be processed in the protection zones and the refugees forwarded to Europe and elsewhere according to a worldwide quota system.

But such ideas remain very much in the exploratory stage. The EU, mostly due to human rights objections from Germany and Sweden, failed to back the British proposal at a summit in Greece last summer.

London may now try to proceed on its own, possibly with other interested countries including Austria, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Britain's daily "Independent" has reported that London is interested in setting up a first pilot "protection zone" in the Horn of Africa, but has set no timeframe.