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Asylum and elections

Asylum and elections

2 July 2001

UN High Commissioner for Refugees

GENEVA - I used to be a politician. Recently, I began a new job as the Refugee High Commissioner.

As prime minister of the Netherlands, my responsibility was to look after the Dutch people. As head of UNHCR, I have 21 million people of concern worldwide, most of them refugees. Close to 1 million, however, are asylum-seekers - people who may be refugees but whose status is not yet determined.

Although I have a strong legal mandate to protect refugees, I have no enforcement capacity. I depend on the good faith of the politicians who control the 150 or so countries where refugees and asylum-seekers are currently living.

But, just a few months into this job, I am finding that commitment worryingly eroded. I am concerned about the tone of the political debate on asylum in a number of industrialized countries - rich nations that can afford to be more generous to refugees.

In some countries - Sweden and Switzerland, for example - politicians have avoided the temptation to stoke the fires with inflammatory rhetoric. In other states, asylum-seekers, and the many refugees among them, are being used as a political football to further political ambitions.

Asylum-seekers have become a campaign issue in various election battles, with governments and opposition parties vying with each other to appear toughest on the 'bogus' asylum-seekers 'flooding' into their countries.

In Australia, Austria, Denmark, Italy and the U.K., for example - individual politicians and media appear at times to be deliberately inflating the issue. Statistics are frequently manipulated, facts are taken out of context, and the character of asylum-seekers as a group is often distorted in order to present them as a terrible threat.

Politicians taking this line used to belong to small extremist parties. Their larger opponents - finding their party presented as weak in the face of the foreign hordes clamouring at the gates - respond by toughening policies, seeking tighter laws, making it more difficult for foreigners of any sort to cross into their territory.

Asylum-seekers make a perfect target for people who want to invoke the age-old prejudice against foreigners. Asylum-seekers can't answer back. 'Illegal'; 'bogus'; 'flood'; 'fraudulent'; 'criminal'; 'scrounger'; 'trafficking' - all are words commonly paired with the term 'asylum-seeker'.

Such words drip into the public consciousness until they become self-fulfilling - the 'public opinion' they help shape stimulates the formulation of increasingly restrictive and harsher policies.

In some countries, large numbers of asylum-seekers are placed in detention, perhaps for years. Sometimes they are put in real prisons, next to real criminals. Elsewhere, they're routinely herded into detention centres, which cost a fortune. The asylum-seekers are then blamed for the high cost. Children are born in detention.

Sometimes, detained asylum-seekers go on hunger strike or riot, allowing themselves to be branded as trouble-makers. Elsewhere, with benefits reduced below national social security levels, some asylum-seekers resort to minor crimes such as shoplifting, begging or prostitution. This is then publicised out of all proportion, continuing the cycle of demonization and criminalization.

I recently went to Iran and Pakistan, each of which hosts at least 2 million refugees, mainly Afghans. It is a truly huge number and the refugees have been in both countries for the best part of two decades.

In Pakistan, I visited Jalozai camp, where thousands of Afghans are crammed together in utterly inhumane and unsanitary conditions. When this camp appears on television screens in industrialized countries, there is - rightly - shock, sympathy and condemnation.

But in a year's time, when one of these Jalozai Afghans is found hiding under a Eurostar train, or arrives in a wealthy country on a leaky fishing vessel, or is snared by an infra-red night-sight climbing under a barbed wire fence, he or she will suddenly and mysteriously cease to be an object of sympathy and fall into that sweeping category of people branded 'bogus' and 'illegal.'

I had a difficult time explaining to Pakistani ministers why they should treat people in Jalozai better, when some public figures in far richer industrialized countries treat asylum-seekers like a modern-day version of the plague-rat.

So I am asking those in the political arena to remember that they are not just scoring a point against their opponents when they play with asylum-seeker statistics and stoke fears of the foreigners in our midst. They are, in fact, indirectly, potentially endangering lives all over the world. I ask them to tone down their rhetoric.

We also need to look behind the numbers. The top two groups of asylum-seekers arriving in industrialized countries today are Afghans and Iraqis. Afghanistan is largely controlled by the Taliban and Iraq is ruled by Saddam Hussein. Both countries have been subjected to international sanctions. Can asylum-seekers from countries such as these really be so easily dismissed as 'bogus?'

Immigration and improving asylum systems are valid subjects for debate. Many asylum-seekers do not in the end qualify as refugees. They can - perhaps should - be helped to return to their home countries. To relieve pressure on asylum channels, new, separate systems are needed to deal with people moving for purely economic reasons. The asylum system itself needs to be fast, fair and efficient.

But distortion, exaggeration and hyperbole are no way to approach an issue that, at root, is not simply about numbers - real or distorted - but about saving human lives. Real refugees should not become victims yet again, portrayed as 'bogus' in our countries.

Surely, there are other ways to win elections.