The United Nations refugee agency is seeking to solve a number of thorny issues in Europe, ranging from thousands of people who suddenly found themselves declared illegal in Slovenia to racial stereotyping by the Italian media.
Stung by the Italian media’s demonising of a Tunisian linked to a recent gruesome murder case, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has worked with the industry on drawing up a code of conduct for coverage of refugee and immigration issues.
“Strong and rather unexpected evidence of xenophobic sentiments emerged, as did a media system ready to act as the sounding board for the worst manifestations of hate,” UNHCR senior regional public information officer Laura Boldrini said.
When the bodies of Raffaella Castagna, her two-year-old son, her mother and a friend were found in the northern town of Erba - the three women stabbed while the infant's throat was cut ¬– some sections of the press swiftly blamed Castagna’s Tunisian husband, who had served prison time on drug charges.
But it soon emerged that Azouz Marzouk had been in Tunisia at the time and the police arrested Castagna’s two middle-aged neighbours on charges of murdering her and the others, apparently due to a feud over noise.
UNHCR argued that the media’s attitude needed to change and Ms. Boldrini wrote to the editors-in-chief of major media organizations calling for serious dialogue on the role and behaviour of the press in such cases and on coverage of refugee and immigration issues, which she said was often characterized by alarmist and warlike language and had influenced public opinion.
Since then, UNHCR, working with academics, two press bodies and other experts, has proposed a draft code of conduct modelled on a 1990 charter that provides protection for minors who are subjects of press stories.
The aim is to produce “a sort of code of ethics that, without prejudice to the right to information, treats immigrants as persons, regardless of their origin, and which leads to a correct use of language and adequate protection for all those who have requested and obtained protection in Italy,” Ms. Boldrini said. A small working group is preparing an initial draft.
In Slovenia the agency is trying to resolve the issue of some 4,000 people who were deprived of legal residency status and its benefits, including facilitated access to nationality, housing, employment, health insurance, pensions and access to higher education, after Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia, apparently due to the short window of opportunity when non-Slovenian residents could apply for citizenship.
“They speak Slovene, they have professional qualifications,” UNHCR regional representative Lloyd Dakin said. “Many of them grew up in Slovenia. With sufficient political will, the whole issue could be resolved quickly.”
Meanwhile UNHCR has welcomed draft legislation in Ireland that will, for the first time, allow refugees who are qualified medical doctors to register and practise. The agency estimates that from 100 to 200 doctors have gone through the asylum system in Ireland over the past decade, but most have not been able to practise.
UNHCR country representative Manuel Jordão urged support for the draft as it moves through its various stages in the Dáil, or parliament. “Integration of its migrant and refugees will be a number one priority for Ireland in the next few years,” he said. “Although only one of many initiatives, the proposal to help refugee doctors to practise will be of immense benefit for their integration prospects and of great benefit to Ireland too.”