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Friday, 31 May, 2002, 21:14 GMT 22:14 UK
UN criticises EU's refugee debate
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
UNHCR: bulk of refugees do not go to Europe
The United Nations refugee agency has accused European governments and far-right parties of conducting an overheated debate on asylum seekers.

Annual asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants
Sweden: 2.57
Netherlands: 2.27
Belgium: 2.16
Germany: 1.94
Denmark: 1.84
Ireland: 1.07
Britain: 0.97
Spain: 0.21
The numbers requesting asylum in the European Union were not increasing, but were in fact substantially lower than 10 years ago, the UNHCR said.

The agency added that it was concerned that rushed legislation across the EU could result in refugees being denied fair treatment.

The latest UN statistics came on the same day that parliament in Denmark - a country once famed for its liberal stance on immigration - approved fresh legislation curbing rights and benefits available to asylum-seekers.

Tactics

Italy's parliament has been debating tougher measures this week, while EU interior ministers on Thursday moved towards creating a new European border police force to curb illegal immigration.

The UK also unveiled plans on Thursday to deport thousands of asylum seekers back to their last country of transit.

Some EU leaders are convinced that the only way to tackle the rise of far-right parties - which frequently campaign on anti-immigration platforms - is to take concrete measures to clamp down on foreigners.

But other observers have warned that continually identifying immigration as a problem, rather than as a potential resource, can only benefit the far-right.

Fewer refugees

The UNHCR weighed into the debate on Friday, releasing data that showed fears that the number of asylum seekers was mounting were unfounded.

According to their latest figures, the number of people seeking refuge was little more than half what it was a decade ago: in 2002, some 374,530 people sought asylum, compared to 675,460 in 1992, when there was civil war in the Balkans.


If this (overheated debate) results in rushed policy and lawmaking, it could have very dangerous results for future refugees

Rupert Colville
UNHCR
The agency also pointed out that the number of asylum seekers individual EU states were being asked to absorb was relatively small compared with those non-Western countries dealt with - notably Pakistan and Iran, which between them have taken in some four million Afghans.

"The UNHCR is concerned that the current debate in Europe is getting considerably overheated," said Rupert Colville at the agency's headquarters in Geneva.

"If this results in rushed policy and lawmaking, it could have very dangerous results for future refugees, either in terms of getting access to Europe or in terms of getting a fair hearing and decent treatment over here."

'Harsh'

Under the Danish proposals, refugees would only be granted permanent residence after seven years, instead of the current three. The criteria for qualifying as an asylum seeker would also be toughened.

Full entitlement to welfare benefits would also be deferred to encourage refugees to get jobs, while the minimum age at which anyone can marry a foreigner will be raised from 18 years to 24, ostensibly to discourage arranged marriages.

Opposition parties have criticised the laws as too harsh.

But Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's centre-right government argues that the measures simply bring Danish law into line with legislation elsewhere in the EU.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Dan Simmons
"The UNHCR says the debate on asylum seekers has become overheated"
See also:

05 Feb 02 | Europe
27 Nov 01 | Europe
22 Aug 01 | Europe
09 Nov 01 | Country profiles
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