The dangers and dilemmas of political asylum

They are not political refugees, was the first thing government spokesman Christos Protopappas said about the 712 desperate individuals washed ashore on Zakynthos by the wild sea of international inequality and violence. This is how the issue of political asylum is treated in Greece. Nor do subsequent statements about examining asylum applications ring with conviction, given the government’s response in the past. Only 10 of the 833 Afghans who requested political asylum in 2001 have had their applications accepted.Unfortunately, Greece is not alone in its approach. Australia refused to accept a ship carrying Afghan refugees; Britain is taking stricter measures at Calais to repel would-be immigrants; and a recent issue of Newsweek contains an article on Fortress America, symbolized by a huge padlock. Political refugees are being hounded all over the world, but this time by the countries that were to have given them refuge. The United Nations Security Council is discussing restrictions on political asylum, making it a prerequisite that applicants not be accused of being terrorists. By whom? By the country that is persecuting them. Such a revision would inevitably mean an end to political asylum (a crucial notion which has played a vital role in the development of the ideas and of humanity itself), since every authoritarian regime accuses its opponents of terrorism. The European Union is discussing a directive for a stricter asylum process so as to discourage applications, while more governments are calling for a revision of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which governs the rights of refugees. Although these tendencies had appeared prior to September 11, they have intensified since then. In the current climate of heightened suspicion, some refugees have been viewed as terrorists. Western countries have not been overly generous in granting political asylum. Less than 8 percent of political asylum applications in the EU were accepted in 1999. Greece lags behind the rest, having accepted only 5.8 percent of the applications it has received in the past six years (848 out of 14,674). The small number of applications in comparison with other countries is some indication of the obstacles put in the way of asylum seekers, who are hindered from even submitting applications. According to the provisions of the Geneva Convention, once applications have been lodged, asylum seekers cannot be forcibly repatriated. In fact, the Geneva Convention does need revising, but in order to broaden the definition of a political refugee. Nowadays conditions are vastly different from those of 1951; it is not only dictatorial regimes that constitute a threat to life, but also some countries which are nominally democracies yet persecute their political opponents. Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians are cases in point. Dictatorial regimes such as that of Iraq threaten Kurds and all dissidents, while in other countries non-state groups such as militias, civil or ethnic conflict, undeclared wars, drug smugglers and other gangs are a threat to individuals. In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America the threat is endemic. Those escaping such situations are not economic immigrants but refugees, and are generally viewed as such by the British justice system, although recent events have brought this attitude into question. Other countries, such as Germany, support the same view. According to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, asylum seekers in Greece during the 1980s came mainly from Turkey, Poland, Iran and Ethiopia. Since 1992 most have come from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and, to a lesser extent, the former Yugoslavia. The period 1998-99 saw an increase in the number of asylum applicants from Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. Terrorism makes Greece a high risk. It also influences the decisions of potential tourists and foreign diplomats forming their stance on issues between Greece and Turkey.

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