On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has chosen the former Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, as the new UN High Commissioner for Refugees. What should be expected of Mr. Lubbers?

The world has changed a lot over the nearly fifty years since the Refugee Convention was adopted, but in ways that have increased its importance rather than diminishing it. Despite - or perhaps because of- its continuing worth, the Refugee Convention has been under attack by European states.

European countries have not shared responsibility for refugees, but instead individual countries have been worrying that they might attract more refugees then neigbouring countries. In order to deter refugees, they have made their laws on asylum tougher than those of neigbouring countries, so contributing to a downwards spiral, because it would then be the turn of the neighbouring countries to make their own legislation tighter.

The Amsterdam Treaty has now committed the European Union to ‘harmonise’ and develop common, binding refugee policies.

The umbrella organisation for refugee-protecting organizations in Europe, ECRE, has urged a common approach to refugee protection because there is a protection lottery in Europe: several European states interprete the Convention narrowly and refugees are not protected according to rational rules but according to where they make their asylum claim. The criteria governing recognition of refugees show differences on important concepts- such as persecution by non-State agents of persecution, a concept not accepted by Germany and Austria. Refugees from countries without a recognised government, such as Afghanistan, cannot receive full refugee status in those countries.

There are differences in relation to gender-based persecution. Some countries accept this as grounds for recognition as a refugee, such as the United Kingdom, other countries grant a category B status, like Sweden.

There are also dangers in harmonising asylum policy: a narrow interpretation of the Convention combined with more and more reliance on complementary protection means that the Convention becomes redundant by limitation to a small group of refugees.

Another great risk to the Convention in the EU's harmonisation process is the threat to access to its protection. This is why there have been attempts to prevent refugees accessing protection in Europe: through visa regimes, carriers' sanctions and so-called safe third country practices, and through regionalisation of refugee protection.

The European Union States are strengthening surveillance of their borders. Spain has announced the installation of an electronic warning system based on Israeli anti-terrorist technology along its sea border in an attempt to make it impenetrable to immigrants.

However, by erecting barriers, states have helped to create networks of traffickers. It is a worrying fact that traffickers have often become a last resort of asylum seekers.

One of the most pernicious measures to deflect asylum seekers is the "safe third countries" concept, implying that asylum seekers should apply for asylum in countries through which they transit before arriving at their preferred country of destination. This has touched off chain deportations, pushing asylum seekers back into countries with fewer resources and less well established legal traditions.

Two years ago, the European Union set up a High level Working Group to draft plans on irregular migration from Afghanistan, Albania and the neighbouring region, Iraq, Morocco, Somalia and Sri Lanka. The plans were supposed to cover flight and migration, but also causes and how to tackle those. However, the plans have not focused on causes such as human rights violations, nor on protection of refugees, but on measures to prevent entry into Europe.

The European developments outlined above threaten foundations of global cooperation on refugee protection. How can one expect countries like South Africa, Tanzania or Iran to struggle with their responsibility if they see rich Europe constantly trying to escape its lighter load?

The UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, addressed the UNHCR Executive Committee on 2 October and said of the present UN High Commissioner, Sadako Ogata:

"You have become part of "a containment strategy’, by which this world’s more fortunate and powerful countries seek to keep the problems of the poorer world at arm’s length.

How else can one explain the disparity between the relatively generous funding for relief efforts in countries close to the frontiers of the prosperous world, and the much more parsimonious effort made for those who suffer in remoter parts of Asia or Africa?

And how else can one explain the contrast between the generosity which poor countries are expected to show, when hundreds of thousands of refugees pour across their frontiers, and the precautions taken to ensure that as few asylum seekers as possible ever reach the shores of rich countries?"

Given the importance of developments in Europe, it is not surprising that Kofi Annan has chosen a European politician, the former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, as the new UN High Commissioner for Refguees. One of his roles will be to stop the undermining of the system which provides for state-protection for refugees.

Lets be clear, there have also been positive developments in the European Union. The EU Governmental Summit in Tampere in 1999, expressed commitment to the right to seek asylum and to develop a harmonised asylum policy which is fully committed to the obligations of the Refugee Convention.

The High Commissioner-elect must ensure continuation of such positive leadership of the European Union and its Member States and persuade them to work together to harmonise at a higher level, rather than give way to the lowest standards in Europe. He should also insist that states give more attention to prevention and tackling the human rights violations and other causes which make refugees flee.

Ultimately, the Refugee Convention has been ratified by governments. His core task is therefore to insist on their responsibilities.

In the EU this means three things:

In doing this, he will find European non governmental organisations, with ECRE as their representative, on his side. We wish Ruud Lubbers much success in his tasks.

This article was earlier placed in the Friesch Dagblad in the Netherlands. Peer Baneke is General Secretary of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), which represents some 70 refugee assisting non governmental organisations in 25 European countries.Website: WWW.ECRE.ORG