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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 19:14 GMT
Q&A: New laws on asylum

As European Union ministers consider changes to Europe-wide policy on refugees and immigration, Europe correspondent Oana Lungescu explains what is at stake.

What deadlines have EU member states set themselves?

With the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty, EU member states agreed to create a common "area of freedom, security and justice". This includes an agreement on minimum standards in asylum policies and practices by 2004 at the latest.

At a special European summit that took place in Tampere, Finland, in October 1999 - the first such meeting to deal with justice and home affairs - EU leaders adopted strict timetables to

  • improve co-operation among police forces
  • ease extradition of criminals
  • recognise each other's judicial decisions
  • combat the smuggling of illegal migrants
The Tampere summit said that a future EU asylum system should include
  • common rules for the admission and decision of asylum claims
  • mimimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers
  • a co-ordinated approach to the temporary protection of asylum seekers
  • a burden-sharing mechanism among member states
The summit also asked the European Commission - the EU executive - to make proposals and draw up a "scoreboard" to monitor progress in this area.

For instance, the scoreboard says that by April 2001, EU justice and home affairs ministers should adopt the criteria to determine which state is responsible for the examination of an asylum application and agree on common mimimum standards for the speedy granting or withdrawing of refugee status.

We need national room for manoeuvre

Austrian interior minister Ernst Strasser
Progress has been patchy on the scoreboard, with some member states criticising the European Commission for its bolder approach.

Austrian interior minister Ernst Strasser said he was against harmonising asylum policy - echoing the sentiment of several of his EU colleagues in and on this delicate policy area, which goes to the heart of national sovereignty.

On the other hand, UK Home Secretary Jack Straw told a meeting of his colleagues in Stockholm, Sweden, that the 15 EU countries had "complicated often contradictory" immigration and asylum regulations that needed harmonising.

There have been calls for changes to the Geneva Convention. What are seen as its shortcomings?

The Tampere summit said a future common asylum system should be based on "the absolute right to asylum" and called for the "full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention." Signed in 1951, in the aftermath of two world wars, the Convention is the first and only international agreement seeking to protect refugees all over the world.

According to article 1 of the Convention, a refugee is someone who has a well founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Since by definition, refugees are not protected by their governments, the international community steps in to ensure the individual's rights and physical safety.

The countries that have ratified the Convention - 139 to date - are obliged to protect refugees on their territory and grant them at least the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals.

So what changes have been proposed?

Mr Straw has called for a revision of the Geneva Convention in order to make it easier to return people to the first EU country in which they arrive.

Britain, which last year overtook Germany as the country with the highest asylum applications in the EU, would like to see an international list of safe nations whose citizens would be barred from seeking asylum elsewhere.

For many countries, the status of refugees and asylum-seekers is becoming an election issue in a worrying way

UN human rights head Mary Robinson
But refugee welfare organisations say the definition of safety depends on the individual claiming asylum and that the burden of the refugee problem would be put on poorer nations in strife-ridden regions.

Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also rejected many of Mr Straw's proposals, saying they would endanger the Geneva Convention.

"For many countries, the status of refugees and asylum-seekers is becoming an election issue in a worrying way," Mrs Robinson said.

Britain is expected to call general elections in May.

The newly-appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said he was afraid that changing the Convention would erode international responsibilities for refugees.

Mr Straw also called for changes in the application of the Dublin convention. Why?

For the past year, Mr Straw has put forward several initiatives to combat "asylum-shopping". This is the practice whereby people whose asylum claim is rejected in one EU country or who fail to lodge a claim in the first port of entry travel further to countries like Britain, where social benefits might be better and the judges more sympathetic.

Mr Straw has now called for a reform of the 1997 Dublin Convention that obliges the first EU country entered to process asylum applications, saying that it had not been working as intended.

Many countries, Mr Straw suggests, turned a blind eye as asylum-seekers travelled to third countries. He wants to see an end to the current situation, where scores of asylum-seekers are waiting at a Red Cross reception centre near Calais, in France, trying to board trains and trucks to get into Britain.

The European Commission is currently looking at the effectiveness of the Dublin Convention and measures are set to be adopted this year in order to limit the movement of asylum-seekers between EU member states.

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