Refugee Council response to ‘UK Home Secretary’s Lisbon Proposals

on Asylum: a Discussion Paper’

The Refugee Council welcomes this opportunity to comment on the Home Secretary’s ‘Lisbon Proposals’ on asylum, as set out in the discussion paper of October 2000.

We are delighted that the purpose of this debate initiated by the Home Secretary "is not to challenge the basic principles of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees." Indeed, he and his European counterparts reaffirmed at the 1999 Tampere council their commitment to a "full and inclusive application of the Geneva Convention on Refugees."



Some voices have questioned the continuing validity of the 1951 Convention in this, its 50th anniversary year. Yet, three years ago, we heard no calls to reassess the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 14 - the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution). No human rights instrument other than the Convention on refugees is seen as having a limited shelf-life.

In its World Refugee Survey 2000, the US Committee for Refugees counted 35 million uprooted people world wide; Amnesty International reports that 125 countries practise torture. The 1951 Convention, with its right not to be returned to a country to face persecution, is a foundation stone of the international human rights framework and is as valid today as it was when it was signed.

It is true that the context is different now. With the end of the cold war the world is more complex, arguably more violent: 35 wars were being fought in 1999, many of them fought on ethnic/national lines, with civilian populations directly targeted. It is disappointing that the only changes picked out in the discussion paper were the recent growth in economic migration and trafficking in people.

The growth in trafficking of people is a direct result of barriers, such as the imposition of visa restrictions on refugee-producing countries, fines on airlines and pre-entry controls.

In the context of globalisation, of free trade and free movement of capital, it is unrealistic to expect to prevent all movement of people. Indeed, it has been compared to the attempt by the United States to ban alcohol earlier this century — like Prohibition, efforts to create an impenetrable European fortress have resulted in a boom in organised crime.

It is not true, as the paper implies, that economic migrants cannot be ‘genuine refugees’. Reasons for flight can be complex. It is quite reasonable for a person genuinely fleeing persecution to try to reach a country where they believe they have the best chance of rebuilding their lives — and making a contribution.

The Refugee Council agrees that there is an imbalance in the targeting of money and effort by host countries. European Union member states have created an elaborate and costly structure of asylum determination, legal and physical barriers, which is aimed at keeping out those who do not meet an increasingly narrow interpretation of who is a ‘refugee’.

At UNHCR’s 51st Executive Committee meeting UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan talked about 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. UNHCR, he said, is 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.’

The Refugee Council does not believe that the numbers threaten the credibility of Europe’s asylum systems. EU member states are amongst the world’s richest countries. Yet, poorer countries in the South cope with far greater numbers of refugees: nearly two million in Iran, 1.2 million in Pakistan. Guinea, with a population of under 7 million supports 500,000 refugees — a ratio 50 times that of the UK. More than one third of all African refugees are seeking asylum in countries at war.

If European asylum systems are overloaded, it is because of years of under-investment, as in the UK, in unnecessarily complex and unwieldy procedures. We welcome Barbara Roche’s initiative to open the debate on moving away from ‘zero immigration’ policies, as we agree with UNHCR that an orderly migration programme that meets the interests of receiving States and migrants could ease the current pressure placed on asylum systems by persons not in need of international protection.

The greatest threat to the systems’ credibility, however, is the constant denigration of asylum seekers by political leaders and the insidious and disingenuous distinction they draw between ‘genuine’ (those who meet European states’ narrow interpretation of the word refugee) and ‘bogus’ (all those who do not).


Categorisation of Countries of Origin


That, in the context of the forthcoming common asylum system, Member States should abandon their differing national policies on safe countries of origin and instead agree an EU list consisting of three categories: high risk, intermediate and safe. This categorisation would form the basis of the way in which asylum applications from nationals of those countries were treated by Member States. It would need to cover ethnic, social and political groups as well as countries.

The Refugee Council considers this proposal counter to international human rights standards, as well as impractical.

We believe that treating people differently according to their country of origin or group may violate the 1951 Convention’s principle of non-discrimination (Article 3). Furthermore, refusing to assess someone’s case according to its individual merits, on the grounds that they come from a ‘safe country’ runs counter to the right to seek asylum, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. EU member states have already agreed to consider each other as ‘safe countries’, in a protocol to the Amsterdam treaty, yet Amnesty International cites human rights concerns in 12 of them in its Report 2000.

We agree that EU states should abandon their national lists of safe countries of origin. The very fact that they differ indicates that they are not based on any objective criteria. Nor are recognition rates a useful benchmark. The proportion of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka given full refugee status in the UK is remarkably low, given the level of human rights abuses documented by Amnesty International and the Refugee Council’s own Sri Lanka Project. Between 1989 and 1998 Canada granted refugee status to over 80% of applicants from Sri Lanka, France to 74% and the UK to just 1%.

The Refugee Council does not believe, however, that drawing up a common list of countries is a useful way forward. Would the EU as a group be any less influenced than national governments by commercial and political considerations? Would it risk antagonising important trading partners like China or Indonesia by declaring them ‘high risk’ or even ‘intermediate risk?’ Realistically, how quickly could a country’s categorisation be changed following, say, a coup? — the slow pace at which EU member states are able to develop common policies does not inspire much optimism.

Practically, we believe that any attempt to speed up negative decisions with separate procedures, such as fast-tracking ‘manifestly unfounded’ claims, only adds layers of bureaucracy and areas of possible legal challenge. A single properly-resourced asylum procedure, producing good quality initial decisions would result in less time and fewer resources spent on appeals. This view is supported by the ARC/ILPA/Justice 1997 report, Providing Protection:

"such processes tend to duplicate resources […] They tend to skew the system towards dealing with cases which have least merit, at the expense of other cases … fast-track systems, though superficially attractive, create more problems than they solve."

One way to ensure that "more is done to help genuine refugees" (the Home Secretary’s stated desired outcome) would be to identify groups in clear need of protection. In 1999 pressure was relieved on the UK system by granting Exceptional Leave to Remain to all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, subject to the Home Office being satisfied that the applicant belonged to that group. The Refugee Council believes that the use of a similar mechanism to grant refugee status to groups of asylum seekers would both help ‘genuine refugees’, by speeding up the process and save valuable resources. Indeed, this is how host countries in the South cope with their greater numbers.

European Resettlement Programme and Applications lodged overseas


1. That the EU should establish a humanitarian resettlement programme, based on an annual decision by the Commission and the Council to set a quota for accepting Convention refugees, allocated on the basis of solidarity between Member States. The total annual quota might be sub-divided into regional or continental quotas.

2. Practical arrangements should be made for individuals from high risk countries or groups to lodge an asylum application from outside EU territory by registering with UNHCR in a third country. The determination would be undertaken by UNHCR as in 2 above, and successful applicants would be referred for inclusion in the EU resettlement programme. Failed applicants would be subject to the migration policies of the third country, but would benefit from advice from UNHCR.

There appears little to distinguish the proposals, given that they both feature UNHCR making initial asylum determinations in the refugee’s region of origin. The Refugee Council broadly welcomes a greater commitment to resettlement as a way of ‘doing more for genuine refugees’ and of Europe taking more seriously its global responsibility for supporting refugees, providing that member states continue to meet their existing legal obligations to those who seek asylum in the EU.

Faced with a burgeoning array of measures to prevent their legal entry into Europe, people fleeing for their lives are increasingly being forced into the hands of smugglers. UNHCR’s report The trafficking and smuggling of refugees: the end game in European asylum policy?, showed that the main nationalities being smuggled and trafficked into Europe are those very same nationalities that are recognised as refugees by European countries. Last year’s tragedy at Dover was just one horrific example of the risks involved: many are thrown out of boats evading interception in the Adriatic, others find themselves forced into prostitution or bonded labour. The report goes on to point out "these are also the same nationalities that have been the main target of all European anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling activity."

Clearly, people fleeing persecution would welcome a safer way of reaching the European Union. It seems unnecessary even to ask "what might be done to make a resettlement programme a more attractive option". We support UNHCR’s view that if such a system were established, "the impetus to move extra-regionally in an irregular manner or to resort to the services of unscrupulous people smugglers may be eliminated, or at least reduced considerably."

The Refugee Council strongly believes that any such programme should be established within the framework of UNHCR’s existing resettlement programme, backed by additional funding. We do not believe that it should be restricted to people from ‘high risk’ countries for the same reasons that we are against country categorisation. The people selected for resettlement should be those most in need of protection, wherever they happen to be. It is worth noting here that the UK currently only takes about 80 refugees a year from UNHCR’s resettlement programme and, unlike other countries, does not set an annual quota.

Although we welcome the principle of expanding Europe’s commitment to refugee resettlement, we have a number of concerns, as the proposals are currently framed:

Public Information

Neglected in the discussion paper is the role of government in fostering a positive attitude towards refugees and asylum seekers. We believe that the Kosovan evacuation showed how quickly a hostile climate can be turned around if there is sufficient political will.

Our Canadian counterparts confirm that the lack of controversy around their resettled refugees creates space for the promotion of more positive attitudes towards refugees, just as the Refugee Council found on the Kosovan programme. Positive attitudes and understanding of refugees’ reasons for seeking asylum are crucial to maintaining the credibility of the European asylum system.

The Refugee Council’s concern is that EU states should not waste the opportunities offered by any resettlement programme, by creating a bogus distinction between ‘good’ (invited) refugees and ‘bad’ (uninvited) asylum seekers.

Action to encourage protection in regions of origin


That appropriate action is taken, both at EU level and in the wider international community, to ensure that countries of first asylum are able to provide appropriate support to displaced people, either temporarily or permanently.

The Refugee Council is pleased that the Government would like to do more for regions of origin, but we restate that this must be additional to, and not in place of, existing legal obligations to those who arrive spontaneously.

It is true that there is an imbalance in terms of funding being spent on asylum determination in the North and the amount of funding available to UNHCR to support it’s operations. As noted earlier, Northern states currently spend vast amounts on attempting to deter people from entering those countries. The Refugee Council would welcome any attempt to redress these imbalances and to see both a policy and practical focus on protection over deterrence.

The Refugee Council is also concerned about the imbalance in humanitarian assistance Northern states provide to states in conflict or post-conflict situations. For example, there is a huge disparity between the funding of approximately $165 per person allocated for Kosovo and the approximately $5 per person awarded to the conflict in Eritrea. We believe that there should be greater equity in terms of humanitarian assistance allocated to countries in need of such support.

The proposal mentions the activities of the High Level Working Group. The Refugee Council supports cross-pillar working and agrees that it is essential to work with international partners, indeed we believe that it is not possible to encourage protection in regions of origin without taking this approach. However, we are concerned that the action plans drawn up by the Working Group are not a good example of how to promote protection, as their focus is largely on deterrence.

We suggest that one way to encourage protection in regions of origin would be for the UK Government to study the root causes of refugee movements and examine whether different government department policies might be either in contradiction with each other or even helping to cause refugee producing situations. It should then develop action plans designed to protect refugees rather than deter them from migrating.

One example of how a lack of cohesion amongst government departments can contribute to refugee producing situations can be found in the sale of arms. In it’s Cut Conflict campaign, Oxfam has highlighted the loopholes in UK legislation allowing UK companies to supply arms and ammunition to conflict areas such as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Organisations campaigning in this area have been calling for some time for the closure of those loopholes which fan conflicts and in turn create refugee flows. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade’s report Small Arms and Africa notes that ‘the UK currently controls 10 per cent of world production of armaments and is a major player in the weapons industry’. The report goes on to note that ‘there has been a dearth of political action enforced by the UK government to ensure that small arms are not sold to countries where human rights or humanitarian law are being violated.’

The Refugee Council is concerned about the serious contradictions between the EU’s complaints about the rise in expenditure on war in, for example, Sri Lanka (now at 6 per cent of GDP) whilst many of the member states (directly or indirectly) continue supplying arms used in the conflict.

If long-term solutions are not found, the UK will continue to receive asylum applications from people persecuted in areas of conflict where the UK is exacerbating situations leading to human rights abuses, either directly, through granting arms export licenses (e.g. to Sri Lanka), or indirectly, through loopholes in legislation. This is particularly worrying when the UK’s domestic legislation is making it extremely difficult for people to seek (or find) protection in the UK. These contradictions must be addressed.

The Government should also consider the links between refugee producing situations and issues such as debt repayments. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade 1999 report The arms trade, debt and development notes that ‘Over half the countries classified as Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) are engaged in conflict or have recently emerged from conflict and are highly fragile states’. Neighbouring countries sheltering the refugees produced by those conflicts may also be carrying a heavy burden of debt.

Guinea, for example, is a HIPC and according to Jubilee 2000 in 1998 ranked only 162 out of 174 countries on the Human Development Index and had an average life expectancy of 47 years. In addition it spends 4.6 per cent of its GNP on debt repayments, yet according to the US Committee for Refugees, it was hosting (at the end of 1998) 514,000 refugees equivalent to a ratio of refugee to total population of 1:15. In Zambia another HIPC, 72 per cent of the population survives on less than $1 a day (91.7% on less than $2), yet at the end of 1998 it was hosting 157,000 refugees, a ratio of 1:61 refugees to local population. In 1996, Guinea paid out $0.76 in debt service for every $1 received in aid grants. In the same year Zambia paid out $1.17 in debt service for every $1 received in aid grants.

The Refugee Council believes that the debt burden contributes to instability within refugees’ regions of origin. We welcome the Chancellor’s recent initiative to write off debt repayments from Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, but, like Jubilee 2000, we believe that far more needs to be done. On top of existing aid grants, additional funding should be made available to countries/regions hosting large numbers of refugees in order to alleviate the burden on their economies.

We believe that the UK’s foreign policy needs examining in relation to refugee producing situations. For example, the UK supported US air strikes on Afghanistan in 1998, but those attacks helped to radicalise the political environment, in turn creating a more threatening climate for moderate Afghans and accelerating the outflow of educated Afghans to the West. The sharp increase in asylum applications to the UK since August 1998 is one manifestation of this.

The Refugee Council believes that it is vital that the UK Government, together with its international partners fosters peace building in areas torn apart by conflict. Important within this is the encouragement and support for the development of civil society during and after conflicts. Recent examples, such as Kosovo, show how vital it is to build civic institutions at a local level for sustainable peace and reconciliation to be achieved. Only then is the durable return of refugees possible.

Consideration should also be given to the strategic role NGOs can play in delivering humanitarian assistance during and after conflict situations in order to ensure that it does not become subject to political influence but reaches local populations that are most in need.

In summary, the Refugee Council supports the Government’s initiatives to do more for regions of origin, but believes that this is only possible if it fosters co-operation between departments and creates positive alliances internationally.


The Refugee Council is strongly opposed to categorisation by country, but welcomes the debate initiated by the Home Secretary around resettlement and assisting regions of origin.

Any developments in these areas should not be made at the expense of those who claim asylum in EU states or at their borders.

They should be made in the context of a commitment by European states to the principle of global responsibility sharing for the effective functioning of the international refugee protection system, which, as UNHCR has stated, "places the primary onus on the more affluent States to demonstrate a much greater degree of solidarity with those low-income States where the overwhelming majority of the worlds refugees are found."

The debate should be underpinned by an emphasis on the positive contribution made by refugees and asylum seekers. Here, strong political leadership is needed, resisting the diversion into a discussion focussed on numbers. After all, it was not the numbers of Jews in Europe that led to the Holocaust. We urge the government to ensure that racists and xenophobes are not allowed to dominate the agenda.

The Refugee Council looks forward to working with the government to further develop these proposals.

Refugee Council International Protection Project

January 2001

For more information, please contact

Richard Williams

Tel: 020 7840 4405

Fax: 020 7820 3107



Deborah Curtis

Tel: 020 7820 3011