UN Secretary-General urges European Union to uphold refugee protection
BRUSSELS, Jan 29 (UNHCR) - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan Thursday called on the European Union to uphold the guarantee of protection to refugees as the Union moves towards harmonisation of asylum.
Speaking at a plenary meeting of the European Parliament, Annan said people forced out of their homes are the collective and moral responsibility of the international community under the 1951 refugee Convention.
"However, when refugees cannot seek asylum because of offshore barriers, or are detained for excessive periods in unsatisfactory conditions, or are refused entry because of restrictive interpretations of the Convention, then the promise of the Convention is broken," Annan said.
During the meeting, Annan was presented the 2003 Andrei Sakharov International Prize for the Protection of Human Rights. The European Parliament awarded the prize, named after the late Soviet physicist and Nobel peace laureate, "in remembrance of UN workers who died during the fulfilment of their duty for the sake of universal peace."
Annan also appealed to the EU to help strengthen the capacity of poor countries to provide protection and solutions for refugees, pointing out that seven out of 10 refugees seek refuge in developing countries, where resources are "far more stretched and human rights standards more uneven." He said the EU should open up greater avenues for legal migration to alleviate the burden on asylum systems.
The Secretary-General stressed that the asylum system in Europe needs the resources to process claims fairly, quickly and openly, so that refugees are protected and solutions found for them. He said European states should move forward towards a system of joint processing and sharing of responsibilities.
The EU member states are in the last leg of a first phase of harmonisation of asylum policies that started with the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. By May 2004, a set of directives establishing minimum standards for all member states in the field of asylum must be adopted. However, negotiations over the remaining sets of rules - notably the directive on asylum procedures - have been difficult over the last months.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers warned last November that the proposed text of the directive would offer only minimal harmonization, and could risk resulting in a substantial deterioration in standards - to the point of being at variance with established international law.
At the Council of EU Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs last week, Lubbers proposed a joint effort and responsibility-sharing by the present 15 member states to avoid the collapse of asylum systems in the future EU countries in Central Europe in the face of a possible increase of asylum seekers in this part of the enlarged Union.