The Western nations that established the international refugee protection system fifty years ago are the same ones weakening it today, Human Rights Watch charged in a background document.

Marking the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Human Rights Watch charted the erosion of refugee protection throughout Western Europe, where punitive policies toward asylum-seekers have obstructed the right of individuals to seek and enjoy asylum.
"European countries, as well as North America and Australia, have systematically diluted their responsibilities towards refugees over the past ten to fifteen years," said Rachael Reilly, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch. "These countries were the primary architects of the international refugee regime in the aftermath of the Second World War - but they are also primarily responsible for its demise."

Among the Western European policies that have obstructed the rights of refugees are:

instituting visa requirements for nationals from refugee-producing countries;
placing heavy fines on airlines that transport asylum seekers who do not have valid travel documents;
posting European immigration officials in refugees' countries of origin
shifting responsibility for refugee protection onto neighbors in Central Europe, where refugees are less protected against forced return to their home countries; and
refusing asylum to people who have fled persecution by non-state actors - such as in Algeria - or who have fled situations of generalized civil conflict, such as in Colombia.
In an especially worrying development, European governments, such as Austria and more recently the United Kingdom, have proposed a major overhaul of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which they describe as outdated and ill-equipped to deal with modern day migration movements. In June 2000, UK Home Secretary Jack Straw proposed that individuals from countries that E.U. governments considered to be "safe" should be excluded from refugee protection.

"The asylum debate in Europe is taking place within an increasingly hostile and xenophobic environment," said Reilly. "European governments appear to be more concerned with protecting themselves than with protecting refugees."

Reilly said European countries were setting a very negative example to countries elsewhere, particularly in the developing world, who continue to host the vast majority of the world's refugees.

Human Rights Watch said that in traditionally generous refugee-hosting countries, including Pakistan, Thailand, Tanzania, and Guinea, governments are increasingly closing their doors to refugees and adopting restrictive and xenophobic refugee policies. Hundreds of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees were injured, dozens of women raped - many of them gang raped - and thousands were arbitrarily detained in Guinea in September 2000, following inflammatory anti-refugee statements by President Lansana Conte.

The document acknowledges the increasingly precarious security situation within which many countries, such as Tanzania, Guinea, and Thailand, are hosting refugees, and the need for the international community to provide additional support to these countries to strengthen their security.

Human Rights Watch urged UNHCR to face the following challenges as it marks its fiftieth anniversary:

to develop a more consistent and effective response to the plight of internally displaced persons, who now outnumber refugees, while at the same time preserving the right of all individuals to leave their country and seek asylum elsewhere;
to develop more effective protection strategies for women, children, urban refugees, and stateless persons, all of whom have special protection needs, and to implement UNHCR's own guidelines more consistently;
to ensure greater protection for humanitarian workers who dedicate their lives to protecting refugees. Human Rights Watch paid tribute to those UNHCR staff who lost their lives in West Timor and Guinea earlier this year.
The new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, replaces Sadako Ogata at the beginning of 2001. As a national of a European Union member state, Lubbers should remind E.U. governments of their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and act to reverse the negative trends in refugee protection in Western Europe.

Finally, the document draws attention to the serious funding crisis facing UNHCR and the gross disparity in the international response to the world's refugee crises.

"The international community, especially Western countries, demonstrated their ability to respond with speed and generosity during the Kosovo refugee crisis," said Reilly. "Western governments should show an equal commitment to assisting refugees elsewhere in the world, particularly the forgotten refugee crises in Africa, where the needs of millions of refugees are sorely neglected."