Second Class Refugees (11/98)

A humanitarian disaster looms on the horizon in Kosovo. As winter approaches, thousands displaced by the fighting live out in the open, running the myriad risks associated with exposure. Meanwhile, safe within the walls of fortress Europe, efforts are underway to reinforce barriers to entry through an Austrian proposal to "harmonize" European Union (EU) immigration and refugee policy.

Not only would that plan mean greater difficulties for those seeking asylum, it also threatens to set a precedent for countries outside the EU, and even redefine the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. By limiting the definition of who can be considered a "true" refugee, it could restrict the rights of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.

Holding the half-year rotating presidency of the EU until the end of 1998, Austria wasted no time in pushing forward its anti-immigration agenda. Already wary about EU expansion, it tabled a position paper on the matter in July. This proposal – which was debated at the end of September by a working group of EU Interior Ministers and subsequently tabled in Brussels with a positive initial reaction – seeks to change existing regulations and establish a burden-sharing regime within the community. One of the main points of the plan is to "Europeanize" migration policy though a single EU commissioner for asylum and immigration.

The regulations in question are based on the Geneva Convention on Refugees. Established in 1951 and modified in 1967, this guarantees protection to individuals who can prove that they are being persecuted or fear persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political convictions, or membership in one or another social group. Once such persecution has been established, an application for refugee or asylum status can follow.

As far as the Austrian Interior Ministry is concerned, however, the Geneva Convention on Refugees covers only a small percentage of the people who currently enter the EU as refugees. Thus, they feel a comprehensive strategy and a wider system is needed to deal with the situation.

The system envisioned would split migrants into two groups: the first would be "true" refugees, that is, asylum seekers in the strict sense of the word; the second would be made up of a general category subject to "other schemes of protection for other groups of persons." This group would be covered by regulations pertaining to "temporary protection." Accordingly, a five-year period would be established, after which receiving countries would have to decide either to end temporary status or to consider permanent integration.

Essentially, the proposal calls for the establishment of a transitory classification of refugees. If the situation "normalizes," then this "temporary" status can be revoked. The Austrian presidency maintains that the system would not undermine the individual nature of a refugee application.

Critics of the proposal aren’t so sure. They contend that reclassification would result in fewer refugees and even fewer applications for asylum. Furthermore, by replacing individual claims with general ones, it would make the granting of asylum a political decision rather than a humanitarian one. As an official at the regional office of the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Vienna pointed out: "If an asylum seeker comes, there is the obligation of the state to study the individual claim, and each case is different. Of course there are similarities, for instance when you take the case of the Kosovo Albanians today. But each claim in itself merits detailed attention."

The Austrian Interior Ministry sees the situation differently. It argues that, as a group, Bosnian refugees didn’t ask for permanent asylum, but rather temporary stay and temporary shelter. Therefore, it merely wishes to formalize the distinction between those endangered by individual persecution and groups of "other persons" – that is, mass migrations from a conflict situation.

Although the argument sounds sensible, it’s clearly flawed. The case of the Bosnian refugees isn’t as simple as the Austrians say. While it’s true that very few applied for asylum, that was mainly because other options for temporary protection were already open to them. Due to the sheer numbers, the UNHCR had asked for this; it wasn’t a recognition of some different category of refugee, but rather just a quick, intermediate solution to the humanitarian crisis.

Despite this, the Austrian position is firm. But in order to alleviate concern over the distinction made in the proposal, all documents from the EU on the subject are careful to stress that the Geneva Convention mustn’t be touched and it will remain the guiding principle. Indeed, supporters of the proposal stress that "complementary measures" have already been added to the convention to deal with issues in Latin America and Africa. The intended point is that Europe is doing nothing out of the ordinary and certainly isn’t violating the Geneva Convention.

For the UNHCR, such soothing jargon appears to be enough. As long as the individual right to asylum remains the cornerstone of any "complementary measure," any proposal put forward by the EU is considered acceptable. Such diplomatic double-talk constitutes the biggest threat for refugees, reinforcing the belief that Austria’s proposal would actually form two complementary elements of one system. The true intent is deftly buried under a miasma of trivialities concerning conflict reduction and migration controls.

For 48 years, the Geneva Convention on Refugees has proven to be an effective means of international protection. But it’s now about to be blunted. Some argue that the world has changed considerably since then; specifically, mass migration induced by regional conflicts, which we must learn to handle constructively as we head towards the new millennium. Yet, such mass migrations aren’t a new phenomenon. In fact, the proposal for EU refugee control is being put forward by the same country that opened its borders during the mass migration following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Five years after the

Geneva Convention on Refugees was established, Austria let in some 200,000 Hungarians fleeing the Soviet crackdown. To this day, those refugees relate heart-rending stories of Austrian generosity and hospitality.

However, the importance of the current Austrian proposal isn’t that it reflects the changing circumstances within a particular country. Rather, it’s part of a broader dilemma affecting all of fortress Europe – and even beyond. The EU must come to terms with its political impotency. On two consecutive occasions – first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo – its reaction to nationalist conflict on its very doorstep has been paralysis.

More energy should be directed at conflict resolution rather than setting up barricades to stem the flow of refugees fleeing nationalist wars. As in many matters both personal and political, prevention will be much more effective than treating the problem after it has occurred. By that time, almost any remedy will be too little too late.

John Horvath is a TF contributing writer who covers Eastern Europe.