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Review of 2001 Friday, 28 December, 2001, 18:29 GMT
A world on the move
Afghan refugees on the Pakistani border
More people than ever have left their homes
David Loyn

Exactly 50 years after the United Nations endorsed new rules for refugees in the Geneva Convention, immigration is still a key issue in the relationship between the richer and poorer nations of the world.


Internationally, the countries who receive the most refugees continue to be those least able to look after them

In 2001 it was discussed often in international summits like the G8 at Genoa in July and the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in September.

Britain complained that other European countries, especially France, were not doing enough to stop illegal immigrants crossing the English Channel.

And Australia drew worldwide condemnation for taking a new tough line on refugees.

The increased mobility offered by cheap air travel, and the continuing gap in wealth across the world meant that more people than ever left their homes.

But under the Geneva Convention only those who can prove they have been persecuted have a right to remain in a new country, and the application has to be made in the first place of safety.

Destination Britain

That is at the heart of Britain's harder line.

The relatively generous welfare provisions, and the English language have made Britain the preferred destination for many asylum seekers, particularly from Asia.

Eurotunnel warning
Britain has tried to step up security around entry points
Sorting out the claims and dealing with applicants while their claims are processed is a major logistical challenge.

As well as improving security at channel ports, and trying to persuade European governments to take a harder line, Britain is planning to introduce identity cards for asylum applicants, and house them in special centres, rather than paying them benefits to live in the wider community.

The UK Home Secretary David Blunkett described the proposals as "radical and fundamental reforms".

And in the wake of the 11 September attacks on the United States, the protests from civil rights groups about identity cards have been muted.

The government also wants to speed up applications.

Mr Blunkett said that the new system should send a message to the world that Britain is not open to abuse, and try to deter refugees at the notorious Sangatte camp near the French coast from risking the trip across.

At the other end of the scale, Britain is to encourage graduates, particularly those with IT skills, to come to the UK to seek work.

Australia's refusal

But it was Australia's refusal to allow more than 400 mainly Afghan refugees to land which stole most headlines on this issue.


If the rich countries spent more on poverty alleviation and less on immigration policies, they might achieve results

UNHCR official Ilunga Nganda
They had been rescued at sea by the Norwegian vessel Tampa, but Australia ignored international appeals and insisted that the refugees be processed on the Pacific Island Nauru instead.

The Australian Government insists that its tougher policy is dissuading people from paying smugglers and boarding boats to make the trip, and it is popular at home.

The Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock is credited with helping the Liberal government to its election victory in November.

But international protests continued.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers was particularly critical of the policy, which one UN official called "the law of the jungle".

Afghan exodus

Compared to the numbers trying to get to countries like Britain and Australia, internationally, the countries who receive the most refugees continue to be those least able to look after them.

Refugees on the Pacific island of Nauru
Australia's immigration policy has been described as 'the law of the jungle'
For example Iran and Pakistan each host more than a million Afghans, with the numbers swollen by the recent war.

Tanzania has the largest refugee camps in Africa, containing more than 600,000 people, because of its proximity to wars in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

In the north of Africa, there are more than 400,000 refugees in Sudan, from neighbouring Ethiopia and Eritrea.

That is why 50 years after it was founded the UNHCR remains a key UN agency.

Its regional director for South Africa Ilunga Nganda said: "If the rich countries spent more on poverty alleviation and less on immigration policies, they might achieve results."

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