What welcome for war refugees?

What welcome for war refugees?


Written by: CARF

By the end of 1998, around 250,000 of the 2 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo had fled Yugoslavia.

Roughly 40,000 had gone to Montenegro (whose population is 640,000). Similar numbers had fled to Sweden, to Greece and to Germany, mostly illegally, and around 20,000 to Switzerland.

No haven from ethnic cleansing

But what reception had Kosovo Albanians received in western Europe prior to the war? Sweden and Germany signed readmission agreements with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1996, and began repatriating Kosovo Albanians despite reports that a quarter of those repatriated were questioned, tortured, threatened or incarcerated on their return. In Austria, only 10 percent of Kosovo Albanians’ asylum claims were successful. The Swiss government sought to repatriate 14,000 Kosovo Albanian failed asylum-seekers and signed a readmission agreement with Yugoslavia in 1997, but suspended repatriations in June 1998. It was seeking to resume repatriation in April 1999. In the UK, where about 10,000 Kosovo Albanians had arrived, mostly illegally, and claimed asylum, an immigration appeal tribunal decided in 1997 that all Kosovo Albanians were genuine refugees. The home office refused to give refugee status immediately to the 7,000 outstanding claimants, saying it would deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

In March 1998 the situation in Kosovo had become so serious that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called for an end to repatriation of Kosovo Albanians. In September, as more Albanians were being killed and burned out of their homes in Milosevic’s offensive, an EU home ministers’ meeting expressed concern at ‘the risk of a massive migration outflow’, but did nothing to plan for the organised reception of the many thousands who would have to flee. All EU member states were keen to keep the ‘problem’ of war refugees out of their countries. But after the war began, and nightly TV reports of desperate refugees being forced from one overcrowded, stinking, disease-ridden camp to another in Macedonia and Albania revealed the extent of the crisis, the original policy of ‘safe havens’ for the refugees as close to Kosovo as possible became untenable.

‘Temporary protection’: the Bosnian experience

Germany’s ministers are particularly strident in their demands for other countries to take their share of refugees. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl described as ‘scandalous’ other European countries’ reluctance to take refugees which he contrasted with Germany’s generosity in taking in 350,000 Bosnian war refugees. But of the 350000 taken by Germany since 1992, barely 80,000 remain. The rest have been forced to leave to prevent their settling in Germany. For Germany is an advocate and a practitioner of ‘temporary protection’. Its policy on war refugees is that they must and will return home as soon as the war is over, regardless of conditions back home.

The repatriations of Bosnians began in 1996 and continued until they were made physically impossible by the EU ban on flights by the Yugoslav national airline, JAT, in September 1998 (in response to the worsening repression in Kosovo). Even then, the German interior minister said he would explore ways of returning the Bosnians by land. War refugees including survivors of torture in the notorious concentration camps, rape victims and people who had become mentally ill as a result of their experiences were given notice that they had to leave. Planes were chartered and large groups of Bosnians were rounded up for deportation. German official figures indicating that only a few thousand were forcibly removed do not take account of the deterrent effect of the round-ups, the threats of force for those who refused to comply with ‘voluntary’ departure, or the effect of cutting off social welfare allowances to starve people into leaving. The EU’s former representative in Mostar strongly condemned the expulsion of ex-Yugoslav refugees, saying, ‘We are sending people back without asking ourselves what awaits them there.’

No settlement rights

The concept of temporary protection emerged in 1992, in the early days of the war in Yugoslavia, as a way for EU member states to deal with ‘situations of mass influx’. The idea is to afford practical assistance to war refugees without giving them any expectation of permanent settlement in the EU, thus preserving the integrity of ‘Fortress Europe’.

In 1998 the Austrian government, which had the EU presidency, proposed abolishing refugee status altogether as an individual right and replacing it with a ‘political offer’ of temporary assistance to those displaced or driven out by war, civil war or persecution. It said that the 1951 Geneva Convention was inappropriate for today’s mass refugee movements and should be scrapped. Strong reactions from UNHCR, refugee organisations and NGOs meant that the language of the Austrian plan was diluted, but the idea lingers. It goes hand in hand with the ideas of keeping refugees in ‘safe havens’ either in their own countries (like the Kurds in northern Iraq) or in camps immediately outside them, as close to the countries of origin as possible, ideas developed in the EU’s Action Plan devised in response to the arrival of some hundreds of Kurdish boat people off the Italian coast early in 1998.

Under the Amsterdam Treaty, temporary protection is set to become enshrined in European law, although common standards across Europe on what rights and what security its subjects should have are yet to be agreed. But temporary protection as a model for refugee reception is already in practice, providing for the refugee a nightmare world of insecurity, rightlessness and desperation. Germany pioneered the degrading and stigmatising system of no-choice allocation of accommodation, closed camps, cashless provision, and vouchers exchangeable only at certain stores for its asylum-seekers and ‘war refugees’, which other states including Britain are now emulating.

Sometimes ‘temporary protection’ is achieved through simply making no decision on asylum claims and allowing people to remain in limbo, often for years, not deporting them but giving them no status. This may be disguised as delays in processing asylum claims, or governments may declare they are not removing asylum-seekers to a particular country. Thus in the Netherlands, until an adverse ruling by a constitutional chamber, Kosovans were not entitled to a residence permit, only to ‘postponement of departure’. In Austria, the interior minister was, even at the end of March 1999, refusing to grant any status to Kosovans, saying they would not be granted humanitarian residence permits since this would encourage them to stay in Austria. He complained that 10,000 Bosnian war refugees had stayed (after the war ended) and warned the Kosovans that they would be deported after the war. In Britain too, the authorities implement a sort of ‘temporary protection’ by not removing various groups. At the moment, Angolans, Algerians and Sierra Leoneans are among asylum-seekers not being removed.

Germany may be rare in explicitly declaring that those it takes in will have no residence rights and will be evicted when the government says so. But Austria, Switzerland and Sweden also returned Bosnian war refugees, and in the Netherlands the ruling coalition was contemplating deporting those with full refugee status.

A new rightless class

The rightlessness of temporary protection suits Western governments in a number of ways. Apart from strictly time-limiting the commitment to refugees, it means that advantage can be taken of them to fill gaps at the bottom end of the labour market as and when required. Leading demographers and economists have expressed concern that Germany is very short of labour. It needs 300000 migrants a year, according to the German Economic Institute. Germany pioneered the system of guest workers, whereby the country of origin paid the social costs of rearing and educating workers who then migrated on temporary contracts to Germany. After the contract finished, the worker was sent home. (Ironically, Yugoslavs formed a large proportion of the guestworkers migrating to Germany in the 1950s and 60s). The guestworker system seized up when the guests refused to go home; a series of campaigns led to rights of settlement being won. Now, the subjects of temporary protection are the new guestworkers, on sufferance, liable to be expelled at a moment’s notice for ‘delinquency’ (fishing without a permit and driving through a red light are crimes which have warranted expulsion) and to be forced out when the authorities deem it fit.

Many other western European governments find themselves with similar labour problems. The more rights EU citizens get, in terms of minimum wages and conditions of work, the more resort will be had to asylum-seekers and those on temporary protection. The segregation of these groups from mainstream society (in terms of accommodation and benefits), the total control of their movements by immigration authorities, make them an ideal captive labour force for the new millennium.

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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