UNHCR Global Appeal 1999 - Regional Overview: Central Europe
Most of the asylum-seekers and refugees in Central Europe have fled countries in the Middle East (Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran), Europe (Kosovo, Bosnia, the Commonwealth of Independent States), Africa (Algeria, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and others), western and southern Asia (Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh). Hungary and Slovenia still have sizable populations of refugees who fled the conflict in Bosnia and Croatia.
The governments of the region have all acceded to the 1951 Convention and have passed, or are about to pass, domestic legislation establishing status determination procedures, providing basic reception systems for asylum-seekers and, in several cases, introducing measures for the integration of recognized refugees. But these newly established asylum systems still lack the capacity to provide protection consistently. As the countries begin negotiations for entry into the European Union (EU), improvements are still needed in legislation, in the institutions involved, and in the standards applied in day-to-day practice. Largely for this reason, but also because the wider range of opportunities for asylum-seekers within the EU still influences decisions, these countries remain primarily countries of transit rather than destination. But the balance is changing, particularly in the countries moving closer to EU membership.
UNHCR supports the development of fair and efficient asylum- management systems in Central European countries that meet international standards in providing protection, assistance and durable solutions to asylum-seekers and refugees. One of UNHCR's objectives is to help the ten Associated States put in place asylum systems that meet international standards. UNHCR is also working in partnership with the major EU assistance programmes to help identify priorities for financial support and knowledge transfer in the asylum field.
UNHCR works with the full range of actors - central government asylum authorities, sectoral line ministries, parliamentarians, local authorities and municipalities, law-enforcement authorities, non-governmental organizations, lawyers, the judiciary, educational and research establishments, the business community, the media and the public at large - to determine the optimal legal and institutional structure and the role each actor can play in a strengthened asylum system. UNHCR holds discussions with groups within the specific countries and in the wider European region to identify standards and capacities relevant to their respective roles and to the implied responsibilities.
The approach to this major capacity-building undertaking has evolved over the years. UNHCR has learned, together with its regional partners - the European Commission, the EU Member States, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), which helps promote the quality, sustainability and coordination capacities of the NGO sector - to see asylum systems as a comprehensive whole, from access to the territory to durable solutions. UNHCR and these partners are developing "toolboxes" of management and training materials that distil the capacity-building experience acquired to date and make it available both to national institutions, for internal training programmes, and for rapid application in other countries.
During 1998, UNHCR has, at the invitation of the European Commission, formed an important partnership with the Phare Horizontal Programme for Justice and Home Affairs (PHP) and the German Federal asylum office (BAFl), together with several EU Member States and the ten EU Associated States, for a two-year Joint Support Project on asylum. The project begins with a detailed assessment of the development needs of all aspects of the asylum systems in each of the ten applicant countries and will continue with multi-country round table events and practitioner-level support measures to examine these needs and identify programmes and available resources (including the country-specific Phare National Programmes) which could help the countries meet the necessary standards.
In addition, a series of symposia, co-sponsored by UNHCR and the hosting state, on asylum in Central Europe has provided an important forum for dialogue about refugee protection standards, bringing all governments from the region together with representatives of western European governments and regional bodies including the European Commission. The latest such event was held in Slovenia in September 1998.
Asylum seekers in transit
Asylum-seekers and refugees often travel in groups of families, struggling to protect women and children. They usually arrive in the region after arduous and often dangerous journeys, typically through the Middle East and Turkey, and often smuggled over borders together with groups of economic migrants from countries of first asylum in which they were unable to find access to adequate protection. On arrival in Central European countries, the crucial question is whether border guards and police allow them to request asylum. This is usually the first test of whether refugee legislation has any real meaning in practice. Depending on the behaviour and attitudes of these "front line" authorities, and on what is known about the quality of protection and solutions available in the country concerned, the refugees themselves often prefer to withhold their asylum request until they arrive in the country of destination. This makes it difficult for UNHCR and its partners to offer them effective protection. Many asylum requests are also lodged as a last resort to avoid deportation - by refugees who have been arrested or detained on their way to a further destination.
Frequently, after initiating an application and receiving counselling and assistance, asylum-seekers will abandon the procedure and continue their journey as soon as the opportunity arises. More often than not they have no choice in the matter: they fear the consequences if the original "contract" with traffickers for their delivery to the country of destination is not fulfilled. This pattern can demoralize government officials, NGOs and others who have made efforts to ensure they are properly received, and adds to the challenges of building fair and efficient systems.
The right to appeal negative first-instance decisions to an independent body is the next crucial hurdle for the refugee. It has taken time for governments in the region to accept that this fundamental human right can not be guaranteed by a ministry of interior or similar administrative body. Fortunately this is also one of the minimum guarantees or safeguards for asylum-seekers required by the EU, and is thus likely to be progressively introduced in all the countries in the coming few years. Every such change also requires a new training effort by UNHCR and its partners to ensure that protection is, in fact, improved.
Countries of Central Europe have been generous in accepting that local integration in the country of asylum is the most viable durable solution for most recognized refugees. Several countries have introduced legislation and basic assistance measures to support the integration process. Some countries try to provide accommodation, as well as access to social services, through links with other ministries and in some cases through municipalities in different parts of the country.
In Central Europe, integration centres have been opened offering refugee women services including skills training to strengthen their self-sufficiency potential. In addition offices are trying to influence governments to recognize the special needs of women making asylum claims.
Cooperation with NGOs
It is partly through experience gained in early integration programmes that governments are beginning to understand and appreciate the contribution that NGOs can make in ensuring a balanced range of assistance. The first government funding of an NGO took place in mid-1998, signalling a growing, if tentative, relationship of trust and willingness to coordinate between refugee-assisting NGOs - which are often vocal and critical in their advocacy and protection role - and governments.
The major challenge in UNHCR's own programme of support to NGOs in the region is to help them secure alternative forms of funding for refugee work, and to establish their refugee services on a sustainable, long-term basis. UNHCR has been the main and often single donor until now. Improving in-country and regional coordination and networking among NGOs is another high priority. It is a process which, given time and resources, will lead to the strengthening of civil society and the mobilization of communities in the region in favour of refugees.
The budget does not include costs at Headquarters.
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