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Monday, 3 September, 2001, 22:38 GMT 23:38 UK
Analysis: Solving the refugee problem
A refugee in Sangatte, France
The EU has failed to agree on a common response
By world affairs correspondent William Horsley

In the waters off Australia some 460 mainly Afghan refugees were cooped up for eight days on a Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, waiting for a decision on where they could land.

Policies are likely to remain ineffective until the pressure of numbers trying to leave their homes in the developing world is sharply reduced

And at the French end of the Eurotunnel rail terminal, hundreds of migrants living in the Sangatte camp are besieging the area in the hope of entering Britain secretly.

The twin crises of the Afghan refugees at sea and the chaos around the Channel tunnel terminal in France have drawn the world's attention to the huge numbers of people who are now being driven by wars, persecution, want and despair to risk their lives for the chance of a secure existence somewhere in the developed world.

The refugees at sea have been lucky. They were saved from drowning, and now New Zealand has volunteered to take some of them, while the rest can expect to have their cases examined on the Pacific island of Nauru.

No compassion

Refugee officials and others, including United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, denounced Australia for a lack of compassion and openness.

Mainly Afghan refugees stranded on Norwegian cargo ship Tampa
Australia refused to let the refugees land
It is thought the Afghans intend to ask for refugee status because they have fled from the harsh regime of the Taleban in their home country.

But the Australian authorities refused to let the whole shipload of people land, fearing that could bind them to let the new arrivals stay forever, and attract similar cases in future.

In the past year more than 4,000 people have reached Australia by boat seeking asylum.


Australia has drawn its own conclusions. Like other countries which once welcomed small numbers of refugees, such as anti-communist dissidents in the Cold War, it is now seeking to protect itself by stopping would-be refugees from setting foot on its shores.

That is also the explanation for Britain's appeals to the French Government to close the Sangatte camp housing hundreds of Afghans, Iraqi Kurds and other would-be migrants.

As it is, more than 1,000 people are being housed in the camp indefinitely, although they have not lodged formal asylum applications.

And the French authorities know that they share the desire to smuggle themselves into Britain on the cross-channel trains which pass nearby.

Ignoring the British appeals, the French have unveiled plans to open several smaller camps for the same category of people in the same area, near Dunkirk.

Unseemly rivalry

The chaos on the ground and the discord between Paris and London illustrate the failure of European Union governments to agree on a common response, despite pledging in 1999 to adopt common policies in asylum policy and other law and order fields as soon as possible.

You cannot complain if you are not prepared to give the money needed for solutions in the regions where the refugees come from

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers

In reality, Western European governments have for years competed to make their own countries harder for asylum seekers to reach or less desirable to remain in.

This unseemly rivalry was on view to the world last year when it emerged that more than 50 Chinese illegal immigrants found dead in the back of a truck entering the British port of Dover had begun their fatal journey in Belgium.

They were just a few of the many hundreds of thousands of illegal entrants to the EU who are living without controls within the union's borders.

Fortress Europe

Many others like them are sent back where they came from, but only after complicated screening procedures have been completed.

Refugee agencies have grown more strident in their criticism of European governments for trying to build a "Fortress Europe" to keep out genuine asylum-seekers, or for failing to honour the Geneva Convention on Refugees.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, also laid the blame partly on Western governments for the large numbers of people moving around the world.

"You cannot complain if you are not prepared to give the money needed for solutions in the regions where the refugees come from," he said in a BBC interview.


But EU governments now say that the numbers are so huge they threaten to overwhelm the available resources and create serious instability in the places where they end up.

Sri Lankan refugees
The EU needs immigrant workers to fill labour and skills shortages

Since 1989 more than five million people have applied for asylum in EU states.

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants to the EU in that time also run into the millions.

Western governments would dearly like to be rid of the regimes which give rise to the current flood of emigrants - including President Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and that of the Taleban hardline Islamic rulers in Afghanistan.

But in those places the West has scant influence.

Labour shortages

The EU acknowledges its need for more immigrant workers to fill labour and skills shortages.

But governments in its member-states want controlled immigration, not immigration by people who are often seen as deliberately abusing the asylum system.

However, policies are likely to remain ineffective until the pressure of numbers trying to leave their homes in the developing world is sharply reduced.

That looks unlikely for many years to come.

But at least Western states may be able to coordinate better among themselves, to avoid the dangers and humiliations faced by migrants like those aboard the Tampa in the Pacific, or at the Sangatte camp near Calais.

See also:

03 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Australia ships out Afghan refugees
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