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Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - The Editor's Desk: Looking for another way

Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - The Editor's Desk: Looking for another way
Refugees (113, 1999)

1 January 1999
Looking beyond the headlines to tackle refugee problems at source.

"In their place we would flee, too," Swiss Minister of Justice and Police Arnold Koller told the nation recently, explaining the sudden influx of Kosovo Albanians. They were escaping from "brutal destruction and armed conflict" and the minister appealed to the Swiss to "show understanding for people seeking protection."

With images of Kosovo dominating Europe's televison screens at the time, his remarks might appear self-evident. They were nevertheless important, if only to refocus on basics in a climate where realities have often been set aside and the "boat is full" rhetoric has dominated recent European asylum debate.

All too often people who seek refuge in Europe are painted with broad, anonymous brush-strokes. A disproportionate amount of resources has been used to erect barriers to deter these anonymous 'faceless" people fleeing crisis zones from entering the continent, but international efforts to tackle the causes which produce refugees in the first place have received far less attention.

Following a suggestion by the Federal Republic of Germany, a UN Group of Governmental Experts was established by the General Assembly in 1980 to explore potential international cooperation to avert new flows of refugees. It met 128 times and then disbanded in 1986 after reaching a painfully obvious conclusion: that any global effort to prevent future refugee crises will probably always be undercut because states do not fully observe the principles of international law.

Progress since then has been incremental at best. It is generally accepted that there is at least some international purview over human rights issues, even at the risk of challenging national sovereignty. The General Assembly has welcomed UNHCR's commitment to "explore and undertake activities aimed at preventing conditions that give rise to refugee outflows" but the organization's own Executive Committee has recognized that the key condition for this is "sufficient political will by the states directly concerned ... "

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata noted recently that "today, conflict within states is the main cause of forced population movements" and therein lies a lesson for Europe. By the end of 1998, 40 percent of all asylum seekers came from just two groups, Kosovo Albanians and Turkish Kurds. If enough political and financial resources were devoted to peacefully solving just those two issues, it would bring relief to hundreds of thousands of people, bring stability to two volatile areas of the world and go a long way toward alleviating Europe's asylum headache.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 113 (1999)