Europe stalls over refugee problem

European countries have yet to agree on a common strategy for dealing with the hundreds of thousands of refugees expected to flee the ongoing war in Iraq as they stall over opening their borders and protecting refugees already living on their soil, journalists were told yesterday at a press briefing at the Athens office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Greece has started preparing reception centers across the country to accommodate refugees it expects to cross its borders and has pledged a total of 4 million euros in aid to Iraq (1 million of which will go directly to the UNHCR), the High Commissioner’s representative in Greece, Bob White, noted. However, the UNHCR has yet to receive a formal answer from the Greek government as to whether it will respond to the UNHCR’s appeal for «temporary protection status» to be granted to refugees currently living in Greece, White said, adding that UNHCR officials are due to discuss the matter with Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis tomorrow. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers last week reiterated the agency’s proposal – that the EU share the burden of an anticipated 600,000 Iraqi refugees in reception centers set up across member states – at an informal summit of EU interior and justice ministers at Veria in northern Greece. (So far, only around 30 refugees have entered Jordan and they are mostly non-Iraqi nationals who were already refugees in Iraq, White said, adding that the anticipated mass exodus will probably happen at a later stage in the war. Meanwhile, hundreds of Iraqis are reported to have flocked to the UNCHR’s office in the Syrian capital of Damascus last weekend, asking for letters offering them temporary protection status.) The UNHCR’s proposal – that processing centers for refugees be set up within the EU states – is in stark contrast to that of British Home Secretary David Blunkett, according to which refugees seeking protection by European host governments would stay in special camps («transit processing centers») outside the EU while their claims are processed and their status established. «The UNHCR has asked for close cooperation with the UK [as regards the conflicting proposals],» Maria Stavropoulou, head of the agency’s protection center in Greece told journalists. «There needs to be a harmonization of all asylum policies in all countries,» she added. «The benefit of Veria was that all the proposals were put on the table,» White noted, adding that «the next step is that something concrete is formulated.» Blunkett was yesterday quoted in the Financial Times suggesting that EU states are moving closer to quotas for economic migrants: «There’s growing enthusiasm given the demographics of the Europe of the future in terms of a managed economic migration policy.» The FT piece also noted that European Union legislation – setting minimum standards for the treatment of asylum seekers and determining which countries should take responsibility for them – is due to come into force soon, and that separate legislation – defining who should be given refugee status – is pending. The UNHCR’s approach to dealing with the refugee problem more generally (not just in reaction to the anticipated impact of the Iraqi war) «is a three-pronged initiative forming part of the Agenda for Protection which was approved by EU member states in December 2001 and is basically an enrichment of the Geneva Conventions,» Stavropoulou noted. The three facets of «Convention Plus,» within the framework of the Agenda for Protection, comprise the upgrading of asylum procedures in individual countries, an improved regional support network, and the establishment of common EU centers to deal with masses of chiefly economic migrants, Stavropoulou explained.