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Possible repercussions for refugees following terrorist attacks worry UNHCR

Possible repercussions for refugees following terrorist attacks worry UNHCR

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in the United States, UNHCR worries about the possible adverse fallout for refugees and asylum seekers and lists 10 specific concerns.
23 October 2001
Some governments are exploring additional security safeguards in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

GENEVA, Oct. 19 (UNHCR) - The U.N. refugee agency Tuesday expressed its worry about the possible adverse fallout for refugees and asylum seekers in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and listed 10 specific areas of concern.

They included the threat of increased racism and xenophobia and the possibility of governments using proposed, recently approved or longstanding legislation and resolutions improperly or automatically against refugees or asylum seekers based on their religion, ethnicity, national origin or political views.

Already, UNHCR said in a statement, there was increasing public perception in some countries of refugees as 'criminals' and attempts to create unwarranted links between them and terrorism.

This came at a time when asylum seekers were already facing difficulties in gaining access to asylum procedures and overcoming suspicions about their ethnicity and the validity of their claims.

Refugees, UNHCR noted, were themselves escaping violence, including terrorism, and were not the perpetrators of such acts.

Some governments are exploring additional security safeguards to prevent terrorists from entering countries, including through asylum channels. UNHCR endorsed these efforts and said it would study "what might be termed the better practices" of capitals undertaking such reviews.

The agency cautioned, however, that any additional safeguards introduced should "strike a proper balance with refugee protection principles that may be at stake."

"It is also crucial that states understand that the 1951 Refugee Convention does not provide a safe haven to terrorists, nor does it protect them from criminal prosecution," UNHCR said. "On the contrary, the Convention is carefully framed to exclude persons who commit particularly serious crimes."

The statement listed 10 specific concerns:

  • Racism and xenophobia: An all-too-common tendency to link asylum seekers and refugees to crime and terrorism, helping to vilify them in the public mind and exposing persons of a particular race or religion to discrimination and harassment. Making such unwarranted links incites racism and xenophobia, the agency said, which has raised serious protection worries.
  • Access to refugee status determination procedures: Legislation may be enacted which could deny certain groups or individuals who, because of religion, ethnicity, national origin or political affiliation, are somehow 'linked' with terrorism, their legal right to these procedures or who could be turned back at a frontier. The Refugee Convention already contains 'exclusion' clauses designed to "deprive perpetrators of heinous acts of refugee protection and to safeguard the receiving countries from criminals who present a danger to that country's security."
  • Exclusion: While UNHCR encourages governments to apply current exclusion clauses on a fair and just basis, there is concern they may automatically or improperly apply them to individual asylum seekers based on the assumption they could be terrorists because of their religion, ethnicity, nationality or political background.
  • Treatment of asylum seekers: Governments may automatically detain asylum seekers or establish procedures that do not comply with the standards of due process. Detention, according to UNHCR, is only acceptable when proven circumstances surrounding an individual case justify it - including when there are solid reasons for suspected terrorist links. Similarly, national status determination procedures must comply with minimum standards of due process involving qualified officials and the possibility of review.
  • Withdrawal of refugee status: States may try to withdraw refugee status on the assumption of terrorist links because of a person's religion, ethnicity, nationality or political affiliation. The normal grounds for withdrawal are based on fraud or misrepresentation of facts that were central to approving the original asylum application.
  • Deportation: Governments may deport groups or individuals, again based on the assumptions already listed. The 1951 Convention allows for deportation on grounds of national security or public order, but only after due process of law, including an opportunity for a refugee to challenge the allegations.
  • Extradition: Capitals may be inclined to extradite groups or individuals for assumptions listed above. Extradition should in fact only be granted upon conclusion of legal proceedings, according to UNHCR, and where it is clearly shown extradition is not being used as a means of returning someone to a country for purposes which amount to persecution, not prosecution.
  • Resettlement: Countries may curtail their resettlement programmes, particularly for certain ethnic groups or nationalities. Resettling refugees in third countries is one of three main ways to help people restart their lives - the others are repatriation to countries of origin or integration in a country of first-asylum - and UNHCR believes the maintenance of this programme is imperative, especially for vulnerable refugees from places like Afghanistan.
  • U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373: Adopted on Sept. 28, 2001, it calls on states to urgently work together to prevent terrorist acts and take additional domestic measures. Resolution 1373, if properly interpreted and applied, is in line with principles of international refugee law. But UNHCR says care must be taken in its implementation to ensure that bona fide asylum seekers and refugees are not denied their basic rights under cover of the need to take anti-terrorism measures.
  • Draft Comprehensive Convention Against Terrorism: Such a convention should be enacted swiftly, but UNHCR said it should not give legal force to unwarranted linkages between terrorists and asylum seekers and refugees, nor should it be construed to imply that the 1951 Refugee Convention is inadequate in dealing with the issue of terrorism and refugees.