UN agency warns EU on ‘safe country’ proposals for refugees

1 October 2003

On the eve of European Union (EU) talks on asylum procedures, the United Nations refugee agency today said it has warned member states that proposed legislation on so-called “safe” countries could “seriously compromise the protection of refugees.”

Among the items the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council is expected to discuss in a two-day meeting, starting Thursday, is the idea that refugees fleeing from one country to another, could be moved to a third, “safe” country with little or no fear of being sent back home.

“If ‘safe country’ concepts were introduced without sufficient safeguards, they could seriously compromise the protection of refugees and deviate from international standards,” the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a press statement released in Geneva today.

UNHCR suggested the safeguards include provisions that the third country should be safe in practice, “not only in theory,” providing a functioning system of asylum for refugees, that the third country be aware of its responsibilities in every case, and accept them, and that the definition of a safe country be reviewed after, for instance, a change in government.

The UN agency said it was “particularly worried” that the asylum procedures directive may allow lists of “safe third countries” to be established and that, due to insufficient safeguards or vague terminology, these could lead to asylum seekers being summarily sent back to non-EU countries without any guarantee that their asylum claim will be properly dealt with there. Such countries might be transit countries, with which the asylum seeker has no firm connection whatsoever, or even a country where the asylum seeker has never set foot.

“If this were to happen, it would be a clear case of avoiding responsibilities," said Raymond Hall, Director of UNHCR’s Europe Bureau. “Even worse, if it is done without the express agreement of the third country, it could lead to people being stuck in airports, unable to access any asylum system anywhere, or even to people being returned to a dangerous situation in their home country – which is, of course, against international law.”


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