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European states should respect advice by UNHCR

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 16/06/2010
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Advice by the authoritative United Nations refugee agency is nowadays not sufficiently respected by governments and state agencies in Europe. Strong recommendations by UNHCR have simply been ignored in a number of recent cases. This policy puts refugees at risk and undermines the agreed international system of refugee protection.

On 9 June 2010 the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom took part in an action coordinated by the EU agency Frontex to expel 56 Iraqi men, whose asylum claims had been denied. An enforced removal was arranged to Baghdad.

This action flew in the face of a clear position and advice provided by UNHCR to governments that Iraqi asylum seekers originating from certain areas in Iraq, including the capital, should continue to benefit from international protection. The safety of those forcibly returned to these areas cannot be guaranteed.

Against the advice from UNHCR a policy has been established to intercept and return migrants who are attempting to reach European shores - without them being offered any possibility to seek asylum. Inter-governmental agreements with Libya have given this country the role of protecting European countries against the arrival of migrants across the Mediterranean, irrespective of these people’s needs.

On 7 June a vessel in distress carrying more than 20 migrants, mostly Eritreans, near Malta and Italy was reportedly rescued by a Libyan patrol boat, almost 24 hours after the first call for help from the desperate migrants. They were brought back to Libya.

By forcing people back to countries where they are at risk of ill-treatment or deportation to other countries that are unsafe for them, European states in fact commit human rights violations. The situation has become even worse after UNHCR was ordered last week by the Libyan authorities to close its office. The agency will therefore be unable to provide any protection to the persons brought back there, unless Libya reconsiders its position with respect to UNHCR's presence.

Another example relates to the situation in Kosovo*, not least for the Roma community. In November 2009 UNHCR made it clear through its guidelines that some of those who previously fled from there would still be at risk if returned. However, 2 500 persons, including Roma, were returned from European countries during 2009, mainly from Austria, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.

Sixty years ago governments of the world adopted the Statute of the UNHCR Office (1950) and the Refugee Convention (1951). Through these instruments UN member states vowed to ‘assure refugees the widest possible exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms’. In addition, states parties to the Refugee Convention have expressly recognised that effective refugee protection depends on co-operation with UNHCR.

It is most unfortunate that European governments now demonstrate disrespect for these crucial agreements. UNHCR is the international expert body on refugee matters with a wealth of experience and competence. Governments should listen to its advice.

Not doing so endangers human lives and risks undermining an international protection system which is badly needed today more than ever.

Thomas Hammarberg