issue 244 - June 1993
Beyond these castle walls
‘There is no turning back. We’ve left everything and all we want is a piece of land without war, a little piece of freedom and perhaps a taste of democracy.’
This Bosnian refugee was stranded on the Austrian/Slovenian border having been denied a visa to enter Britain. She had just run up against the wall which is being erected around Fortress Europe – and which rich countries the world over are building to protect their own privilege against what they see as a possible tidal wave of refugees. They are doing this in flagrant disregard for their own obligations under international law – specifically the legally binding 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. And while President Clinton’s policy of turning back boatloads of desperate Haitians seeking refuge in the US from military dictatorship hits more headlines, the most glaring example of this new attitude to asylum-seekers is in the European Community (EC), because there the policy has been arrived at through carefully co-ordinated strategy (or ‘policy harmonization’). If these European countries are flouting international law, it is not through bureaucratic error – it is through deliberate policy.
They now insist that all applicants for asylum within the EC must carry valid passports and visas – and are even fining airlines to the tune of $3,000 for each passenger they carry in who does not hold them. Not only does this turn airline personnel into immigration officers, but the policy screens out the very people who most need asylum. How on earth could an Iraqi escaping from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime apply for a passport from the authorities or approach an embassy for a visa? Only those who can afford forged documents on the black market have even a ghost of a chance of getting to Europe.
Even those who make it to a European airport are often treated brutally. Take this young Eritrean woman, a former political prisoner in Mengistu’s Ethiopia, who tried with her brother to apply for asylum at London’s Heathrow:
‘The official considered our passports. She began shouting at us, saying “how can you come in this way without proper documents – you will be sent back to Addis Ababa”. When she said this we were so distressed that we fell on our knees, weeping and pleading. The woman laughed at us – she thought it was funny that we were on our hands and knees. She said “We don’t want Ethiopians; there are too many”. They took my brother by his legs and dragged him along the ground. Then the woman took me by the wrists and pushed me onto the plane.’
Britain has been prominent among those Western governments which have stressed that refugees should stay in their region of origin rather than be accepted into the rich world: thus impoverished Malawi has hosted a million refugees from the fighting in Mozambique, and Pakistan three million from Afghanistan.
Yet Britain has been notably reticent in accepting responsibility for its own region in the biggest refugee crisis to befall Europe since the Second World War – that in the former Yugoslavia. While Germany, for example, has accepted more than 250,000 former Yugoslavians, Britain’s response to the crisis was, in November 1992, to impose a visa requirement on Bosnians seeking asylum. Needless to say, it is virtually impossible to get a visa in Bosnia – that is precisely why the requirement was imposed. At least Britain is consistent: it demanded visas from Germans and Austrians trying to flee the Nazis in the 1930s.
As a response to an international crisis this is nothing less than outrageous. If the number of displaced people in the world is swelling as they are forced to run from civil war, oppression or plain poverty, the response should not be to reinforce the walls of the rich-world fortress. It is high time the international community examined the real villains of the piece, not the unfortunate victims.
Jan Shaw is Refugees Officer with Amnesty International British Section.