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A just asylum policy: Refugees and their rights must be protected

They managed to flee from Syria – but what next for the refuge-seekers? The provisions of the Geneva Convention on Refugees state that displaced persons should be able to expect a just and humane asylum policy in their neighbouring countries and in Europe, yet this promise is not always kept, and responsibilities are pushed aside.

‘I am a human being – not some number on a piece of paper.’ This is the response of Roula, a young woman from Syria who fled to Jordan with her family to escape the civil war in their homeland. Oxfam asked Roula and other Syrian refugees in Jordan what it meant to be refugees, and their responses drew attention to the dramatic situation. Since the war began, more than two million people have fled across Syria’s borders into neighbouring countries, and are in need of shelter, food and medical care. This prompted Oxfam to issue a report in October 2013 formulating recommendations for alleviating these hardships, addressed to the international community as well as to the Syrian government and the opposition. Besides political solutions such as immediate cessation of weapons deliveries to the warring parties, there is also an urgent need to allow humanitarian aid in the war-torn country and to provide protection for refugees.

A fair asylum policy without borders

Like Jordan, Syria’s neighbours Turkey and Iraq have also admitted refugees, while in Lebanon the number of Syrian refugees is meanwhile roughly equal to one quarter of Lebanon’s own population. The governments of these nations are expressing growing concerns for security, and fear the negative economic and social impacts of these growing throngs of refugees and their worsening distress. In order to ensure the international rights of the Syrian refugees as defined by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the borders to neighbouring countries must remain open.

At the same time, nations beyond the crisis region – in Europe and around the globe – must provide aid: for the refugees themselves as well as for the countries bordering Syria. This raises questions yet again as to asylum policy in Europe and specifically in Germany. Are the directives and guidelines of the Geneva Convention, which constitute the foundation for decision-making by UNHCR, being upheld? And will the international solidarity called for by Oxfam, other refugee aid organisations and the countries bordering war-torn Syria be honoured across all borders?

Fleeing to Europe by deadly routes

Fleeing crises to reach Europe, particularly from African countries and across the sea, is risky. For many thousands of people, such attempts come to a deadly end, drowning when unseaworthy boats capsize. The shipwreck off the coast of the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, which claimed the lives of more than 300 people who boarded in North Africa, has meanwhile become a symbol for the desperate plight of refugees. Most of them have fled from war, torture, incarceration or hunger, left their families and homeland behind, and – if they survive their journey – are dependent on the protection and welfare of the EU authorities.

Every nation in Europe has signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees and undertaken to apply all national laws and regulations relevant to ensuring the international rights of refugees. This also means that persons seeking protection are guaranteed access to fair and speedy asylum procedures, and are protected under the international principle of non-refoulement from being returned to any country where they are threatened by persecution, torture or any other manner of inhumane treatment. Yet, in this context as well, Lampedusa stands as an emblem for the difficulties entangling EU asylum policy. For, according to the Dublin Regulation, Greece or Hungary, like Italy, are also responsible as EU external border states for ensuring proper asylum procedures for persons fleeing to Europe who arrive at their borders.

Germany and Europe: Asylum policy under fire

This EU Regulation (meanwhile in its ‘Dublin III’ version) has come under strong criticism among other reasons because it places the responsibility for refugees on the EU external border states. Yet, these countries are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of applicants, posing yet another calamity that refugees must face. The cases of denied sea rescue, use of violence against refugees, infringement of the principle of non-refoulement and internment of asylum seekers as well as unjust and protracted asylum procedures in EU member states demonstrate that these regulations to date have led to human rights violations. In Germany, many refugees are housed in transit camps and either banned outright from taking up employment or subject to ‘inferior access to the labour market’. Almost 90,000 people live in Germany under suspension of deportation, one third of whom have been living under this status for over six years – a far cry from the requirement for speedy asylum procedures.

Refugee and human rights organisations such as PRO ASYL, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles and Amnesty International are demanding fundamental reform of Europe’s asylum policy to provide reliable, secure regulation of the right to stay (right to residence) and fair acceptance and accommodation of refugees. Syria is not the only situation revealing how important it is to act swiftly and as comprehensively as possible. Actions such as the German humanitarian admission program for refugees from Syria are welcome developments. Germany accepted some 6,000 Syrian refugees in 2012 under the auspices of this programme. Moreover, some of Germany’s states have relaxed regulations governing family reunification. Yet, international comparison reveals how small in scope this step actually is. As Franziska Vilmar, asylum expert at Amnesty International in Germany, puts it:  ‘Amnesty is calling on the other European nations to finally accept larger numbers of refugees from Syria. It’s just not acceptable that Lebanon, a small country with 4.3 million inhabitants, is alone responsible for 700,000 refugees.’

Discussion within the community about refugees and asylum policy

How in your opinion can asylum policy be improved in Germany and Europe? What role should be played by Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operative Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union? We look forward to hearing your views on refugees and asylum policy – share them with us and other alumni in the ‘Sustainability’ community group.


Author: Sabine Müller

January 2014

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