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Restrictive trends in Western European asylum policy generally continued in 1998, as many countries saw dramatic increases in the number of asylum applications. While there were procedural improvements in some countries, the general response to the increase in asylum seekers was to tighten borders against “illegal migrants,” shorten asylum procedures, limit the right of appeal, and pass responsibility to other nations—“safe third countries” through which the asylum seekers traveled en route to Western Europe.

An influx of Turkish and Iraqi Kurds in January set off a bureaucratic panic over a potential “mass influx,” leading the European Union (E.U.) Council of Ministers on January 26 to adopt an “EU Action Plan on the Influx of Migrants from Iraq and the Neighboring Region.” The action plan, though paying lip service to the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers, was clearly aimed at developing means to satisfy those needs in the home region of asylum seekers, so that persons would not seek refuge in the E.U. member states. Moreover, the plan, with a majority of its provisions devoted to “preventing abuse of asylum procedures” and “combating illegal immigration,” reflected the official position that most of the arriving Kurds were economic migrants, not refugees. In fact, approximately one half of the Turkish and Iraqi Kurds who arrived in Italy between mid-December and mid-January filed applications for asylum. Italy took the principled decision to give these applications individualized consideration. This decision was criticized by other European countries that feared the asylum seekers would leave Italy for other destinations in Europe.

A second influx of much larger proportions came from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, as a result of the conflict in Kosovo (see Federal Republic of Yugoslavia). Again, the response by West European countries was to try to contain refugee flows in the conflict region. The German government gave the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) DM500,000 (U.S.$312,500) to assist Kosovo Albanian refugees, making clear that it expected the UNHCR to provide this assistance in the Balkans. Most West European states heeded the UNHCR’s plea to halt expulsions of rejected Kosovo Albanian asylum seekers. However, Germany and Switzerland refused to ban expulsions for the first five months of the conflict; together they expelled hundreds to Kosovo, where upon return many were detained and interrogated, and some were severely beaten, according to interviews with Human Rights Watch.

The “safe third country” rule remained a favored means of limiting states’ obligations to asylum seekers. Those who traveled through a country deemed “safe” were often returned to that country with limited rights of appeal. Application of the “safe third country” rule among E.U. member states was governed by the Dublin Convention, which came into effect on September 1, 1997. Member states experienced difficulties in applying the Dublin Convention and “safe third country” rules, because most asylum seekers lacked travel documents or evidence of their travel routes. In response, member states made a priority of negotiating theEurodoc Convention, which will provide for fingerprinting of all asylum seekers. A number of countries also considered measures to strengthen the legal presumption against undocumented asylum seekers. Refugee lawyers reported cases of “safe third country” policies resulting in deportations from one “safe third country” to another, and in some cases to the country of origin where the asylum seeker faced a threat of persecution.

Many asylum seekers who did not run afoul of the “safe third country” rule received summary rejection of their claims as “manifestly unfounded.” Asylum seekers whose claims were deemed manifestly unfounded generally faced accelerated procedures, with limited opportunities to appeal the decision. In some positive developments, an Austrian court struck down a law that gave those with manifestly unfounded cases only two days to appeal. Germany finally complied with a 1996 Constitutional Court decision requiring that it make legal assistance available at the airports to assist applicants whose claims are deemed manifestly unfounded. Sweden approved a six-month pilot project to give nongovernmental organizations access to airport areas.

Large numbers of asylum seekers were held in detention throughout Europe in 1998. Detention was particularly prevalent for rejected asylum seekers awaiting deportation. Deportation was often stymied by the absence of proof regarding nationality and the unwillingness of countries of origin to accept the return of their citizens. In other cases, rejected asylum seekers fearing persecution upon return put up fierce opposition to deportation. Many went underground, others sought and received church asylum, and some engaged in hunger strikes or even committed suicide to avoid return. In September, a Nigerian woman died in Belgium after policemen who were trying to deport her pressed her face into an airplane seat cushion to stifle her screams, she lost consciousness, and fell into a coma; the two policemen faced criminal charges, and the Belgian minister of the interior resigned over the ensuing scandal.

Throughout Europe, states continued to struggle with the refugee legacy of the conflict in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Some countries, hosting relatively small numbers of Bosnians, gave them permission to remain. Germany, which received 350,000 Bosnians during the war, took the toughest stance. By mid-1998, more than 200,000 had left the country—190,000 voluntarily returned to Bosnia and Hercegovina, 2,000 were forcibly repatriated, and 10,000 were sent to third countries. For many of those returning voluntarily, the threat of deportation and other penalties rendered their return less than fully voluntary. German authorities warned that the remaining 150,000 would be expected to leave the country by year’s end.





Republic of Belarus

Bosnia and Hercegovina



Czech Republic








The Russian Federation





United Kingdom


Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Asylum Policy in Western Europe



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