Nordic NGOs launch campaign to protect refugees

Twenty Nordic non-governmental organizations on Tuesday urged regional governments to offer greater protection to people fleeing violence and human rights abuses. The call came at the launch of the "Keep Them Safe" campaign.

Iraqi refugees take language classes in Sweden earlier this year. NGOs have criticised the policies of Nordic governments towards asylum seekers from Iraq and other areas swept by violence.   © UNHCR/R.Vikström

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, September 25 (UNHCR) - Twenty Nordic non-governmental organizations on Tuesday urged regional governments to review their policies towards asylum seekers fleeing generalized violence and armed conflict.

"We call on the Nordic governments to jointly work, regionally and internationally, towards strengthening international protection to give the right to asylum real value and substance," the NGOs said in a joint debate article.

The call came at the simultaneous launch in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden of the "Keep Them Safe" campaign, which has received backing from the UN refugee agency. Asylum seekers affected by the gap in the Nordic protection regime include Iraqis, Sri Lankans and Somalis.

Participants in the unprecedented regional initiative complain that Nordic governments have either left failed asylum seekers in legal limbo or sent them back to countries affected by violence - contrary to UNHCR guidelines.

"Such returns are inhumane and degrading and violate international and European law in some instances. Therefore, non-governmental organizations in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have joined forces in a regional campaign calling upon the Nordic governments to ensure that people fleeing violent conflict receive the protection they are entitled to," the NGOs said.

They also claimed that some reasons given by people in their applications for asylum were seen as more legitimate than others. "People fleeing violent conflict fight an uphill battle to be granted asylum in the Nordic countries. Being labelled as 'merely' fleeing 'generalized violence,' one is seldom granted protection and asylum in our part of the world," the NGOs said.

"UNHCR supports and welcomes this campaign as it aims to stimulate discussion on and identify solutions to a critical gap in international protection. A first step in closing this gap would be a full and consistent adherence to UNHCR's protection recommendations," said Hans ten Feld, the refugee agency's regional representative.

The campaign participants also urged Nordic governments, as a minimum, to act in accordance with the UNHCR recommendations and guidelines on asylum and protection.

Ten Feld said protection gaps for asylum seekers fleeing violence and rights abuses existed in both the law and its interpretation. People risked becoming victims of failed protection twice; in their country of origin and in the country in which they seek asylum.

The campaign will last until the end of the year. Organizations taking part include national Red Cross societies and regional offices of Amnesty International as well as close UNHCR partners, the Danish Refugee Council and the Norwegian Refugee Council. UNHCR has also provided assistance by facilitating a regional dialogue between the campaign signatories.

By Anna Leer in Stockholm, Sweden