NEWS

EU wants Iraqi refugees kept in region

VERIA – The European Union yesterday backed plans to handle any exodus of Iraqi refugees in the immediate region of the conflict and not in EU countries. But at a meeting in this northern Greek town, EU justice and interior ministers said there was no sign yet of a refugee crisis caused by the US-British war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. «The situation isn’t alarming, not like Kosovo in 1999,» said one EU diplomat. «The question today isn’t about welcoming refugees but about getting humanitarian aid to the victims of the conflict,» he said. During the war in the Serb province of Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees were sheltered in neighboring Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Thousands more made their way to Western Europe, principally to Germany, which also received an influx of refugees from the earlier wars in the former Yugoslavia. Following those crises, the EU in 2001 adopted legislation that foresaw spreading refugees around different member states by providing «temporary protection in the event of a mass influx.» The protection status would not automatically lead to asylum, and could be withdrawn once stability returned to the refugees’ country of origin. In line with this policy, the EU is now sending thousands of Afghans home. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose chief Ruud Lubbers attended the Veria meeting, fears that up to 600,000 Iraqis could flee the war. But a European Commission official said the EU ministers had agreed that «it isn’t necessary at this stage to apply the temporary protection directive» for Iraq. Another source added, «Nobody wants to talk officially about temporary protection because we don’t want to encourage Iraqis to come to Europe.» In any case, the EU is examining British proposals to set up regional processing centers to handle asylum claims outside the EU. Britain argues that the current system for handling refugee claimants is too vulnerable to abuse and too expensive for the host country. It wants better international coordination in the form of «zones of protection» nearer the countries where conflict or human rights abuses are rife. In the case of Iraqis, that would mean sending them to centers in Turkey, Iran or Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Greek Justice Minister Philippos Petsalnikos said «regional solutions» would be the best way to deal with any refugee crisis caused by the Iraq war. «It would be best if the refugees stay in countries neighboring Iraq,» he told reporters. «We hope that it will not be necessary for them to come to Europe and that we will find regional solutions like in the Kosovo war in 1999,» he added. German Interior Minister Otto Schily said, «The aid should be supplied on the ground and in the region, not in Europe.» Amnesty International on Thursday angrily condemned the British proposals as hypocritical at a time of war against Iraq. «It is extraordinary that a proposal to reinforce ‘Fortress Europe’ is being debated at this time when war in Iraq may result in many people fleeing the country,» said Dick Oosting, director of Amnesty’s EU office. But the UNHCR said the ideas had «merit.»