It was the Guardian that gave the game away early this year (2003) when it revealed the contents of a report to the British Government by senior civil servants at the Home Office on ways of managing the influx of asylum seekers to the United Kingdom. The idea is simple: to make them wait outside the country. Anyone arriving in Britain to claim asylum will be sent to a secure holding centre outside European Union borders until his or her application bas been processed. If asylum is granted, the applicant will be able to return to the UK - or to another EU country - as a refugee. If asylum is refused, the person will be sent back to his or her country of origin. According to its British architects, the system would have many plus points: not least, it would deter the «bogus» asylum seekers, «economic migrants» and «terrorists» of every stripe who currently «take advantage» of asylum procedure to gain entry to the UK illegally. Turkey, Iran, Somalia, Albania and Ukraine are mentioned as possible locations for the new «processing centres», which would in effect be selection camps for asylum seekers. The ability of these countries to observe the procedures laid down in international agreements - notably the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugee status - is a matter for some scepticism.
The proposal contained in the British report is a landmark in a process that goes back several years. Its originality lies not so much in the concept of detaining Europe-bound migrants in more or less official «Sangatte-style» camps, for this phenomenon has spread steadily as crises of various kinds have driven millions of people into exile in search of a better or safer life. From southern Algeria to Malta, from the island of Lampedusa to the Ukrainian border and from the Canaries to Slovenia, camps of all types are now strung out like so many nets for migrants, with the common aim of impeding, if not blocking, their way into Europe. The novel element here is the decision to intern outside the EU asylum seekers who are currently within its borders. For years now, the Member States of the Union have been devising strategies for ducking their obligations with regard to receiving refugees. While the Geneva Convention on refugee status still constitutes, in theory, the main basis for these obligations, it has been undermined in various ways, notably since 1997 when the EU decided, in the Treaty of Amsterdam, to adopt a common policy on asylum.»  This led to formal definition of the concepts of «safe countries» - countries whose nationals are deemed a priori not to require protection - and «manifestly unfounded» asylum claims, enabling a significant proportion of applications to be summarily dismissed. Now, rather than withdrawing from the Geneva Convention - an option that Tony Blair has considered - it has been decided to export its effects, with an initiative to relocate asylum procedures, the intention of which is transparent.
Selfless as ever, the British were quick to share their bright idea with their European partners. In mid-March 2003, Tony Blair presented his counterparts with a plan for «better international management of refugees and asylum seekers». The plan is based around two concepts. On the one hand, a regional response to migration would be developed, combining efforts to prevent the causes of population movements. with better protection in «source regions», resettlement in Europe of certain «genuine» refugees on a quota basis, and raising awareness in countries of origin and transit countries of the need to take migrants back (!), possibly on the basis of readmission agreements. On the other hand, «transit processing centres» for asylum seekers would be set up in a number of third countries, to which foreigners who had come to the EU in order to claim asylum would be dispatched following a short period of detention on their arrival in a Member State.
Since the end of March, the camps proposed by our British experts have been pushed onto the agenda for European-level discussion. Let us not be deceived here: the sole purpose served by the first aspect of the UK plan, namely regional management of migratory movements - which is a mere repackaging of initiatives either proposed many times before (to prevent the root causes of migration, for example) or already in place (like the conclusion of readmission agreements) - is to make the second aspect, the new camps, more palatable to Britain’s discussion partners who, for the sake of national and international opinion, must appear to be convinced of its merits.
The current EU Member States will probably have no difficulty in finding countries prepared to assume the role of border guards. After ail, they have various means of persuasion at their disposal. In some cases the arm-twisting will be political: bear in mind that there are approximately 15 applicant countries queuing up outside «Club Europe», ready to follow the 10 whose imminent accession to the Union was agreed in early 2003. In other cases, financial levers will be used - blackmail as a means of achieving cooperation being a long-established component of EU relations with less developed countries. After all, in the Cotonou Agreement, concluded in 2001 with ail the countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific group, the EU imposed a standard clause committing the ACP states to negotiate agreements for the readmission of their nationals who enter Europe illegally. In the same spirit, the Union can probably come up with «arguments» to win over countries that are reluctant to become the site of future asylum seekers’ «processing centres».
The Member States will have to do more than reach agreement with these obligated partners, however, in order to legitimise their plan. For the sake of appearances, they need allies. Within the EU, definition of the common asylum policy will be influenced primarily by the European Commission. The Treaty of Amsterdam gives the Commission and the Member States an equal right of initiative in this field and the Commission has produced a number of communications and draft directives, which may be deemed to constitute its programme. Next, and most importantly, there is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), whose role is to afford refugees international protection.
The European Commission calls for «responsibility sharing» with third countries
For some time the Commission has been exploring the possibility of processing asylum applications «at regional level», i.e. close to the applicants» countries of origin, the argument being that this approach would remove refugees from the clutches of traffickers who currently control their access to Europe. Until now, this scenario has been envisaged only in conjunction with existing procedures and not as a compulsory alternative to spontaneous individual asylum claims. In a communication published in March 2003, the Commission raises the question once again. Convinced that the crisis in the asylum system is more and more evident in Europe, it calls for new avenues of response to be explored, including «a genuine policy of partnership with third countries and relevant international organisations». Behind its subsequent euphemistic assertions that the concept of «protection in the region of origin [...] could be integrated into an overall architecture offering solutions» and that «much heavier involvement of third countries of first reception and transit» is required lies the implicit indication that externalised centres for processing asylum claims are likely to be a reality in the near future. The Commission’s suggestion, in the conclusion to its communication, «that serious thought be given to possibilities offered by processing asylum applications outside the European Union» gives grounds to fear that things may now move much faster: in fact, the Council (representing the governments of the 15 Member States) has given the Commission until the end of June 2003 to submit - in liaison with the HCR - a detailed report on the prospects raised by the British proposal.
For its part, the HCR closely follows developments in EU asylum policy and, although it bas no institutional role, its approval is critical in conferring legitimacy on that policy. Tony Blair has been attentive to this dimension, making his European partners aware that High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers had shown interest in his proposals and declared himself ready to work with the Member States and the Commission in developing them further.
This is not something that could have been taken for granted. For although the Geneva Convention does not require the states that ratify it to accept asylum seekers - it is important to be clear here that the Convention provides no «right of asylum» but simply defines who can be recognised as a refugee - one of its core principles is that of non-refoulement [that people will not be returned forcibly to situations where they have a well-founded fear of persecution]. Because all asylum seekers are potentially refugees, it is uncertain whether a system whereby they were immediately removed from the country in which they lodged their application, to be detained in a transit centre thousands of kilometres away, would fully reflect the spirit of the Convention. Moreover, one of the tasks that the HCR sets itself is that of «promoting and monitoring states» adherence to the Convention and [...] enabling them to offer adequate protection to the refugees on their territory» . It was not, therefore, a foregone conclusion that it would approve a scheme designed to achieve the eviction of as many asylum seekers as possible.
Will the HCR’s «Convention plus» actually mean less protection?
It is true that possible new forms of international protection have been under consideration for some time now, as part of the consultation process initiated by the HCR to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convention. On the premiss that the Convention no longer offers an adequate response to patterns of population movement, it has been concluded that «more equitable burden sharing» is necessary. In less diplomatic language this means that ways must be found of enabling more countries to accept refugees, notably by encouraging the refugees to stay in the states they first enter on leaving their country of origin. According to the High Commissioner for Refugees: «A major concern today is the issue of secondary movements of refugees and asylum seekers.» This means that «an effective system of international burden sharing» needs to be established in order to «enable refugees to find adequate protection or assistance as close to home as possible». Given that the European Union receives fewer than 10% of all the world’s asylum seekers, such a proposal must inevitably be greeted with unease. The fact is that the initiative - part of a programme entitled «Convention Plus» launched by the HCR in autumn 2002 with the declared objective of strengthening the Geneva Convention - appears to be more concerned with protecting Western European states than refugees! Ruud Lubbers reinforced that impression when be told the EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers that: «With a greater emphasis on ensuring lasting solutions in regions of origin, the numbers of refugees requiring settlement in European countries will be lower, and the need to integrate these people into your societies will be easier to explain to your citizens.» In other words, there is still no better way of combating racism than by expelling its potential victims. It is a re-working of the old formula: «No Jews, no anti-semitism».
From «protection as close to home as possible» it was only a short step to external transit camps for asylum seekers, and the HCR took that step in late March 2003. Invited by the EU Home Affairs Ministers to discuss Tony Blair’s proposal, the High Commissioner joined his hosts in deploring the tact that the asylum system was being distorted through abusive use of asylum procedures by «bogus» applicants and «economic» migrants. He offered to help them determine criteria for identifying people not in need of international protection, and to introduce common - and simplified - procedures for receiving such people and considering their claims, so that they might be processed faster, thus easing the pressure on national systems. Mr Lubbers added that the common approach could be based on placement of the persons concerned in closed centres. The 10 countries shortly due to accede to the EU, almost all of which adjoin current Member States, seem to be regarded as prime locations for the processing camps. Mr Lubbers concluded by announcing that the HCR was prepared to move quickly to set up pilot schemes.
It is true that, whereas the British proposal envisages shifting all asylum seekers into camps outside EU borders, the HCR plans relate only to so-called «abusive» asylum claims classed from the outset as «manifestly unfounded», to use the new term of choice. Nonetheless, by admitting the possibility that asylum claims may be processed outside the Union’s borders, the HCR gives its imprimatur to the principle of «asylum elsewhere» - surely the dream scenario for Western governments who find themselves squeezed between two conflicting arguments. On the one hand they are keen to demonstrate that Europe remains democratic and respectful of fundamental entitlements in a world where human rights are widely treated with contempt. On the other hand, they aim to use every possible means of containing what they sec as the inherent dangers of uncontrolled movements by people in search of asylum. The new formula allows them to reconcile the two aims, for it relieves them of their duties in relation to reception of asylum seekers without necessitating formal withdrawal from the commitments they have made.
It is no surprise that the Heads of State and Government welcomed the support of the Commission and HCR. Sustained by these two allies, it is quite likely that by the end of 2003 they will be able to take a decision - without any form of democratic scrutiny - on the establishment of external camps for asylum seekers, thus completing the process of turning Europe into a sealed sanctuary, in which foreigners and refugees are seen as a threat.