UN refugee agency concerned by new US asylum policy

21 March 2003
Ruud Lubbers

With worldwide anxiety over homeland security prompting governments to rethink their national immigration and asylum guidelines, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced concern that a new United States policy requiring mandatory detention of asylum-seekers based on nationality unjustly targets persons who themselves are fleeing conflict and human suffering.

In a letter to the US Government yesterday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, noted that, "detention of asylum seekers should be the exception, not the rule and should be based on an individualized assessment of the security risk the person poses. Blanket mandatory detention based on nationality varies from accepted international human rights norms and standards."

The policy - dubbed "Operation Liberty Shield" - was announced earlier in the week, and includes calls for the mandatory automatic detention of asylum-seekers from 33 classified countries and territories "where Al-Qaida, Al-Qaida sympathizers, and other terrorist groups are known to have operated." The US Government bills the policy as a comprehensive national plan "designed to increase protections for America's citizens and infrastructure while maintaining the free flow of goods and people across borders."

From Geneva today, a spokesman from the Office of the High Commissioner (UNHCR) said while the agency fully recognizes and supports the need for heightened security measures during tenuous times of increased insecurity, the tendency to link asylum seekers and refugees to terrorism is a dangerous and erroneous one.

Kris Janowski stressed that asylum seekers who reach the US have themselves escaped acts of persecution and violence, including terrorism, and have proven time and again that they are the victims and not the perpetrators of these attacks. "The US has always been a generous and safe harbour for those victims of war and persecution," he said, "and UNHCR hopes these people in need will continue to find safety and dignity on US shores."

Mr. Janowski noted that while UNHCR shares US concerns about potential abuse of the asylum system, the country already has in place a number of screenings to identify those individuals who pose potential security risks. "US asylum law and the 1951 Refugee Convention exclude any persons engaged in terrorist acts from refugee protection," he said.


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