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Refugee News                       August 1997
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Worrying signs from Europe  More information
Three major organizations have, in the last few months, warned about the state of basic human rights for refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe. Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the European Commission itself have said that these are deteriorating. 

On June 17, Amnesty International issued its annual report on Human Rights Violation. The section on Europe says that "ethnic minorities were particularly vulnerable to torture, ill-treatment and police brutality, and the plight of refugees also worsened." The organization reported cases of Torture or ill-treatment, including rape in 33 European Countries. In 17 countries people are in jail just because of their beliefs. The report gives the details of people who have 'disappeared' in Bosnia and Turkey during 1996. It also notes that individuals, whose 'disappearance' in Bosnia, Cyprus, Croatia, and the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was documented in previous reports, still remain unaccounted for. 

Amnesty gives prominence to the situation in former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia 'dozens of prisoners were detained simply because of their nationality'. Civil war refugees have not been allowed to go back to their homes. "Europe's worst human-rights disaster since the 1940s far from being resolved" says the report. In what remains of Yugoslavia, police frequently make use of torture, especially against Albanians in Kosovo. 

The report mentions also the use of torture by police in Russia and in Turkey. Here again, most of the victims are from ethnic minorities. In the Kurdish provinces, scores of people are summarily executed. Amnesty quotes from a German government report that says that police abuse of foreigners is "more than just a few isolated incidents." 

Prejudice against foreigners does not seem to affect only police officers from the less well developed countries in Europe. A report, commissioned by the European Union as part of the preparations for the European Year Against Racism, states that immigrants and ethnic minorities in "all member countries" suffer from discrimination in practically all spheres of social life: employment, housing, education and training, and access to services. 

Besides discrimination from institutions, foreigners who live in Europe are increasingly in danger of racist, violent attacks that, the report says, "are reported throughout the community with sickening regularity". Racism and xenophobia have become so widespread that politicians can longer ignore them and the report notes that the "language of racism has become increasingly common in public, political manifestations in all the member states of the community." 

As for the causes of this change in mentality, the report mentions the poor state of the economy, the growth of individualism and the ever increasing number of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. In an effort to combat racism a number of activities are being organized up to the end of this year, including seminars, sports events and music festivals. 

Panic about the number of refugees and immigrants in Europe seems to be affecting political leaders too! This issue was one of the priorities during the recent summit in Amsterdam. The heads of government agreed to push for greater harmonization of refugee and asylum policy. 

But they also introduced a new restriction. Member states can now use their discretion when assessing a request for asylum from a citizen of another member state. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern immediately about this decision. In a press release on June 20, the UN refugee agency said that this new directive "goes against an important element of the 1951 Refugee Convention which guarantees unqualified access to asylum." If the EU applies limitations to the Convention, others can follow and could weaken the universality of the instrument for the international protection of refugees, said the press release. 

This is not the first time that an EU directive put limitations on the rights of refugees as stated in the 1951 Geneva Convention. The term "refugee" is defined by the Convention, to which all EU countries are signatories, as encompassing anyone "with a well-found fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a social group". During a meeting of Interior Ministers in 1995, it was decided that "persecution" can only be conducted by a government or governmental organization and that people fleeing from a civil war do not necessarily count as refugees, since having one's life endangered by such a war is not construed as persecution either. With this new definition, the 800,000 people who fled Bosnia during the civil war could be refused refugee status. 


Amnesty Report Scathing 

Amnesty Report (Europe) 

Amnesty International (Refugees) 

Amnesty International On-line 

Amnesty International Home Page 

UNHCR - information on: 
Bosnia & Herzegovina 
June 20 UNHCR concerned about restricted access to asylum 


Ireland: Homelessness, Housing Need and Asylum-Seekers 

Comments (from Jesuit Refugee Service NEWS 15.07.97) 

Refugees and homeless in UK - resources 

Minority Rights Group 

Human Rights Watch 

Refugee News: More on EU.