Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - An uncertain direction ...

Refugees Magazine Issue 113 (Europe : The debate over asylum) - An uncertain direction ...
Refugees (113, 1999)

1 January 1999
Will asylum seekers be more ... or less welcome ... as Europe coordinates its asylum policies?

European countries are increasingly coordinating their asylum procedures ... but will refugees be more ... or less ... welcome in future?

By Judith Kumin

"The depressing realisation struck me that I was now really a homeless man, a fugitive, and under police surveillance.... We set out for Strasbourg without further delay. However, the actual goal of my journey was Switzerland. (The prefect in Strasbourg) informed us that the French government had decided to intern the refugees. There was no way he could give us passports to enter Switzerland ... so we secretly decided to proceed there even without official authorization."

It could be the diary entry of a Kosovo Albanian, Sri Lankan Tamil or a Kurdish asylum seeker carefully plotting their entry into today's Europe, but instead they are the words of Carl Schurz who fled Germany in 1849 and later became a U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior.

Refugees like Schurz have always been a part of Europe's landscape, more in this century than ever before. A million people fled the Bolshevik armies in European Russia in 1919-1920 and the massive human floods continued down the decades: 320,000 Armenians scattered throughout Europe a few years later, nearly two million Greeks and Turks transferred to friendly territory under a 1923 agreement between the two old enemies, hundreds of thousands of people uprooted during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and a quarter million people fleeing Germany in the same period. By 1942 there were more than 21 million homeless and displaced people scattered throughout Europe.

The Cold War era spawned new refugee movements. Displaced people became both political pawns and political capital in the struggle between East and West. Asylum took on an ideological basis which favoured refugees from communism who found the doors open to them in this charged atmosphere.

Their moral and legal rights were underpinned by the creation of such organizations as the United Nations and the Council of Europe. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights assured people the right to seek and enjoy asylum and the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees codified the principle that no one should be returned to a country where his life or freedom would be at risk.

Question mark over asylum

Ironically, though the Soviet Union has been dismantled, the Berlin Wall was torn down nearly 10 years ago and democracy is taking hold in central and eastern Europe with the promise of increased fundamental freedoms, a large question mark hangs over Europe and its attitude toward the downtrodden.

The years when Germany eagerly imported migrant workers to fuel its economic miracle are long gone, this at a time when Europe has become even more attractive to other migrants from Africa, Asia and the east and southern Mediterranean. Costly European welfare systems are becoming harder to sustain.

As these safety nets weaken, it has become easier to manipulate the issue of foreigners, including refugees, depicting them as competitors for scarce jobs, housing and welfare funds and creating a convenient outlet for social resentment. Migratory flows themselves have become more complex, blurring easy distinctions between bona fide refugees and huge numbers of economic migrants.

First time asylum requests in individual European countries in 1997
Czech Rep.2,110
United Kingdom32,520

Today, Europe's doors to asylum seekers are, at best, ajar.

The picture does vary from country to country, often reflecting colonial links. It is no surprise that asylum seekers from Guinea-Bissau often go to Portugal, those from the Congo (ex-Zaire) to Belgium and from Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom. Nearly all countries, however, began tightening their asylum policies when numbers began to rise and the proportion of non-Europeans also increased.

Until the early 1980s the number of asylum seekers arriving in Western Europe remained fairly stable at under 100,000 annually. Around 70 percent came from Eastern Europe and they were rapidly granted asylum and easily integrated. When individual countries were unable to cope, as in 1956-57 when 200,000 Hungarians streamed into Austria and Yugoslavia, other European countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, all willingly offered permanent settlement to numbers of refugees - an early form of "burden sharing" which four decades later has become such a contentious issue among European nations.

The continent's first large-scale experience with non-Europeans came with the resettlement starting in the late 1970s of Vietnamese boat people and other Indochinese refugees who were not allowed to stay in first asylum countries in Southeast Asia. That movement was controlled and manageable.

By the mid-1980s, however, the picture began to change. In 1986 the average number of applicants almost doubled to nearly 200,000 and reached 316,900 in 1989. More applicants came from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. By the time the number of aslyum seekers in Europe reached a unprecedented peak of 696,500 in 1992, governments were applying a sweeping 'zero immigration' policy. The emphasis had shifted decisively from one of protecting refugees to exclusion and control.

A complicated reason

The background to the dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers is a largely European one. In 1992 one-third of applicants for asylum in Western Europe were Romanians and Bulgarians who, after years of repression and restriction, were allowed to travel abroad. Applying for asylum ensured at least a short stay in the "west" though it did not necessarily reflect a fear of persecution. As freedom of movement and democratisation increased, asylum applications from former East-bloc countries dwindled. That same year, one fourth of all applicants were citizens of the former Yugoslavia.

The influx of people fleeing war and persecution in the Balkans has continued throughout the 1990s. Germany took the brunt of this influx, sheltering 350,000 Bosnians and as many as 100,000 Croats, most of whom have since returned home. They are rapidly being replaced by an increasing number of Kosovo Albanians fleeing the outbreak of open conflict in that province.

By last year the number of asylum seekers in Europe had dropped to 332,800, or less than half the 1992 peak. Roughly 45 percent, went to Germany, continuing a trend of the last quarter century. Approximately 40 percent of applicants were Europeans, mainly Kosovo Albanians and Turkish Kurds, reflecting two of Europe's most intractable problems.

Nevertheless, some new patterns have begun to emerge. The number of refugee-receiving countries has grown since the Iron Curtain came down and last year Poland received more asylum applications than Norway, a longtime host nation.

Refugee policy in Europe today is framed mainly as an issue of immigration control and national security. During Germany's recent election campaign, the Christian Democratic Union released a poster railing against "the abuse of the right of asylum and economic refugees" reflecting the reality that because prospects for regular migration to Western Europe are virtually nil, many would-be migrants seek entry through the asylum process.

The result is that governments must cope with mixed population movements including both refugees and economic migrants. A host of measures have been devised to limit the access of both asylum seekers and illegal migrants to European countries and to define more narrowly those who are considered deserving of protection. The European Union is trying to coordinate asylum policy, not only among its 15 member states, but also with east European countries which are candidates for EU membership (see separate article).

A European incentive

The spread of democracy in central and eastern Europe and the emerging perception that the region is 'safe' for asylum seekers, has provided Western Europe with an incentive to formalise efforts to define which state is responsible for examining an asylum request. As barriers between the two regions and within the Union itself gradually come down, Western countries have intensified efforts to discourage asylum seekers from lodging applications in more than one country, or "shopping around" in search of the most favourable hearing or best reception conditions.

Some of these west European states systematically send back asylum seekers to 'safe' third countries through which they transitted in central Europe. If these nations in turn adopt similar policies, this might set off a chain reaction of expulsions with the end result that people could end up back in the original country of persecution.

The principle that a would-be refugee should seek asylum in the first country in which he or she is able to do so is taking hold - unfortunately without a clear consensus on what constitues a "safe" country for asylum seekers and without any monitoring mechanism to ensure that access to an asylum procedure is guaranteed.

The organized trafficking of asylum seekers has also increased, mostly in response to governments' measures to strengthen border controls and other steps to stop refugees and migrants from reaching western Europe. This trade is generally depicted as a degrading and unsavory crime. But a recent study by the British Refugee Council entitled "The Cost of Survival: The trafficking of refugees to the UK" reminds readers that this was the measure resorted to by Raoul Wallenberg, Oscar Schindler and others who, with the benefit of history's hindsight, are considered heroes and saviours.

Even though the number of people who applied for asylum in central Europe last year was only one percent of the overall European total, all countries in this 'buffer zone' have now acceded to the 1951 Convention, as has the Russian Federation. Hungary also lifted the geographical reservation which it imposed when it signed the Convenion in 1989 ... under which it previously agreed only to consider European asylum applications.

While many recent signatories lag behind in implementation of their obligations and the three-way division of Europe between west, east and central is still evident, the gap is diminishing.

The European Union's demands that countries wishing to join the EU should comply with basic standards on asylum issues is undoubtedly leading to a degree of 'harmonisation', but a problem persists in the major difficulties the small number of recognized refugees have in genuinely integrating in the 'new' asylum countries of central and eastern Europe. This serves as a 'push factor' encouraging asylum seekers and refugees to continue their east-west trek through countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary.

Discouraging new arrivals

Asylum Claims in Europe in the last 10 years

Governments have introduced restrictions to try to reduce what they perceive to be an excessive number of people seeking protection, including reducing social benefits, detaining asylum seekers and applying a narrow legal interpretation of who can qualify as a refugee.

While some countries such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands are more popular than southern-tier nations such as Greece and Spain, in part because they offer better facilities and social benefits, they are moving to reduce the differences. Switzerland's Minister of Justice and Police Arnold Koller told a recent parliamentary debate that Bern must take steps to make itself less attractive than Germany for asylum seekers.

For its part, Bonn already gives applicants assistance in kind rather than in cash and at 80 percent of the level a needy citizen receives. Earlier this year it reduced benefits further to asylum seekers entering the country illegally or whose applications have been rejected. In mid-October, the Netherlands introduced a system in which new arrivals are housed in tents and put on a 'waiting list' for proper accommodation.

The threat of detention is also used as a deterrent (see separate article). UNHCR estimates that one in 10 asylum seekers are detained in Austria at any one time. Some are gaoled with common criminals. Those arriving at Frankfurt airport are held in a closed facility until their claims have been decided, a practice the government has refused to label detention, arguing that the people are free to leave at any time, back to the country they came from.

Implementing a narrow interpretation of who can qualify as a bona fide refugee is, however, probably the most worrying aspect of asylum trends in Europe. Even as an increasing number of people flee from countries wracked by civil war such as Angola, or where state authority has totally collapsed as in Somalia, the idea of excluding people who have been persecuted by so-called "non-state agents" like rebels or religious extremists, has grown.

Germany's Federal Administrative Court ruled recently that persons who fled Afghanistan's Taleban cannot qualify for refugee status because the Taleban do not represent a recognized government. Bosnian Muslims, Somalis and moderate Algerians have also run afoul of this interpretation. However, Sweden recently amended its law in order to explicitly recognize there is nothing in the 1951 Convention which would exclude refugee status for persons persecuted by non-state agents. Important court rulings in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands confirmed the convention's interpretation, long advocated in UNHCR's handbook.

Clarity or confusion

Last year only 11 per cent of European applicants were recognized as refugee under the 1951 Convention. While some countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands granted a much larger proportion of applicants permission to stay on humanitarian grounds, experts worry that the low overall rate of recognition of refugees will have a negative fallout as public opinion perceives a growing number of asylum claims to be "abusive."

According to Catherine Withold de Wenden of France's National Centre for Scientific Research, if governments continue to create confusion over who is a refugee by refusing to attach that label to people clearly in need of protection, or resort to granting specific groups permission to remain on an ad hoc basis, they run the risk of fuelling social tensions and xenophobia against refugees.

So how good ... or Europe's record. Does the continent deserve the cliché Fortress Europe? The evidence is mixed. Europe registered 332,800 asylum applications last year, but 70 percent sought protection in just four countries - Germany, Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

A total of 44,000 persons were recognized as refugees in 23 countries in 1997, but 41 percent of those recognitions were in Germany. European opinion is often perceived to be 'anti refugee' yet when Austria suggested in a position paper submitted to the European Union this year that asylum should no longer be considered a subjective individual right, but rather a political 'gesture' by the asylum country, there was widespread furore with headlines such as "Austria tampers with the Geneva Convention" and "Europe protects itself from refugees."

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata posed perhaps the most relevant question of the whole debate over asylum in a recent address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe when she asked: "If industrialised states are unable to implement generous asylum policies for the relatively small number of refugees knocking at their doors, how can we expect poorer developing countries to open their borders to huge numbers of refugees?" How, indeed?

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 113 (1999)