UN refugee agency proposes security-enhancing measures for asylum system

UN refugee agency proposes security-enhancing measures for asylum system

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With governments reviewing security-related aspects of their asylum systems in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, the United Nations refugee agency today announced a set of specific proposals to enhance the screening process but warned that any new measures should not victimize innocent civilians seeking refuge.

In a statement released at its Geneva headquarters, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) said that it had circulated a number of suggestions to governments to help them identify and deal with terrorists trying to enter a country via the asylum system.

At the same time it noted that while "appropriate mechanisms need to be put in place in the field of asylum as in other areas," current refugee instruments already excluded terrorists from the international asylum process.

"International refugee instruments do not provide a safe haven to terrorists and do not protect them from criminal prosecution," the agency said. "On the contrary, they render the identification of persons engaged in terrorist activities possible and necessary, foresee their exclusion from refugee status and do not shield them against either criminal prosecution or expulsion."

The agency in part recommends enhanced cooperation between border guards, intelligence services and immigration and asylum authorities, as well as with organizations such as Interpol, Europol and Eurodac. It also suggests "rigorous use" of the so-called exclusion clauses in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, which deny asylum to people who have committed particularly serious crimes.

Other measures include setting up specialized "exclusion units" to deal quickly with cases in which asylum-seekers were suspected of terrorism or serious crimes and the use of detention - but with clear legal safeguards - for any asylum seeker strongly suspected of being involved in terrorism.

"UNHCR has also sought to clarify the circumstances under which measures such as the cancellation of refugee status, expulsion and extradition are permitted under international refugee law," the statement said, emphasizing that because of the life-threatening consequences of an incorrect decision, such measures should not be resorted to "on the mere assumption" that an asylum-seeker or refugee could be involved in terrorism.

The agency's view is that it is much better for all concerned to deal with all asylum claims within the clearly defined international legal framework that already exists, while at the same time "tightening any loopholes in national asylum practices that could conceivably be exploited by a terrorist."