Stopping asylum before it starts

The right to asylum in the UK is being transformed into the West's right to intervene abroad.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

We are often told that we live in a world where human rights have become paramount. It is claimed that the universal rights of human beings are being put before the limited and arbitrary rights of national citizenship.

If this is true, why is there such a consistent trend towards restricting the right to asylum, once seen as a basic universal right? Immigration policy has long been understood as a reflection of a state’s economic and political desire to regulate the supply of labour – but asylum was held to operate independently of the ‘narrow’ interests of national governments.

UK prime minister Tony Blair’s promise to slash asylum applications in half by September 2003 has raised asylum groups’ fears that fundamental human rights will be threatened (1). Such fears seem to have been confirmed by the findings of the joint Cabinet Office and Home Office project Future of Migration, whose report A New Vision for Refugees was leaked to the media. The report proposes that a majority of asylum seekers would lose their right to claim asylum in Britain and would be returned to ‘regional protection areas’, where their applications would be processed (2).

On 10 February 2003, UK government ministers promoted the report to Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, during his trip to London. Blair and his home secretary David Blunkett have already opened talks with the UN on revising the asylum rules, raising the possibility of Britain pulling out of the UN Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights if a new solution cannot be found.

What seems to be happening is that people’s right to asylum in the UK is being transformed into the West’s right to intervene abroad. Under the guise of protecting human rights abroad and easing the flow of refugees, Britain is boosting its right to call the shots in other states’ affairs.

The increasing concern over human rights over the past decade has mirrored the declining importance of rights of sovereign states to self-government and non-intervention. There is now little contradiction between upholding human rights and undermining a nation’s sovereign or democratic rights. Throughout the 1990s, Western powers launched wars and invasions under the guise of ‘defending human rights’, everywhere from Somalia to Bosnia, from Kosovo to Afghanistan.

The blurred distinction between domestic and international political concerns reflects the increased leverage that Western states have had over the rest of the world since the end of the Cold War. And in the context of the growing division between the major powers and the less developed world, the right of asylum is one of the long-standing universal claims that is under threat (3).

In the Cold War world – framed by the UN Charter protecting the equal rights of sovereign statehood – the domestic and international spheres were strictly separate. Humanitarian assistance and the claim to asylum were based on the limited rights of external intervention in crisis situations. For this reason, such rights seem anomalous today, at a time when intervention in the name of human rights is prevalent.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees were established to protect refugees’ rights. The right to asylum is a universal claim rather than a political right, as the subject concerned is by definition not a citizen of the state concerned.

The rights of refugees to find safe refuge in another state – with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country – fall on the universal claim of need. The right to asylum has fallen into disrepute as the right to intervene has grown. If the Western powers have a new ‘responsibility’ to intervene to protect human rights there is less pressure to grant a right of asylum. This was stressed by European Union officials, who have argued that the proposals build on earlier thinking about the establishment of ‘safe havens’ (4).

Rather than grant rights of asylum, the report A New Vision for Refugees proposes a range of ‘protected areas’ near or in the refugees’ country of origin, where they can be held. These include a regional protection area in Turkey, Iran or northern Iraq for Iraqis; a protected area in northern Somalia for Somalis in the south; a protection area in Morocco for Algerians and other Africans in transit to the EU; a possible protected area in the Balkans, and possibly one in Zimbabwe; a protection area in the Ukraine or Russia to be used as ‘an off-territory processing centre’, where economic migrants who arrive in Britain from areas bordering the newly enlarged EU could be sent while their claims are processed.

The report sets out a case for international intervention to reduce the flow from the main refugee-producing countries, with a graded response ranging from aid packages to sanctions to armed intervention. While conceding that ‘any coercive intervention in other states is of course controversial’, the Whitehall policy document argues for international recognition of the need to intervene to reduce ‘flows’ of refugees, including ‘military action as a last resort’ (5).

The key element of the Blair government’s ‘new vision for refugees’ is the removal of the right of asylum and its replacement by a ‘right of intervention’. This shift towards intervention will inevitably mean the downgrading of the role of the UNHCR and a higher profile for the International Organisation of Migration (6).

As leading refugee rights analyst, Gil Loescher, writes: ‘A major obstacle to taking a more active role in refugee protection in countries of origin derives from the international refugee regime itself. The UNHCR was designed to appear to be non-political and strictly humanitarian…. UNHCR, as it is presently structured, is not mandated to intervene politically against governments or opposition groups.’ (7)

In our new human rights era, the right to asylum has few defenders. This suggests that rather than there being a growth of universal human rights, we are seeing more and more interventionist ‘rights’ for Western powers (8). For the UK government, it seems that the only good human rights are ones that justify military intervention in other countries. The ‘New Vision’ seeks to change the universal right of asylum into just such a ‘right’.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
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  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
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  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
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  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
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    • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
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    (1) Alan Travis, ‘Blair Targets Huge Asylum Cuts’, Guardian, 8 February 2003

    (2) Alan Travis, ‘Shifting a Problem Back to its Source’, Guardian, 5 February 2003

    (3) See Fiona Fox, ‘Conditioning the Right to Humanitarian Aid? Human Rights and the “New Humanitarianism”’, in D Chandler (ed) Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (London: Palgrave, 2002)

    (4) Ian Burrell and Stephen Castle, ‘Plans to Return Refugees to “Holding Areas” in Eastern Europe’, Independent, 6 February 2003

    (5) Seumas Milne and Alan Travis, ‘Safe Havens Plan to Slash Asylum Numbers’, Guardian, 5 February 2003.

    (6) See Alan Travis, ‘Shifting a Problem Back to its Source’, Guardian, 5 February 2003

    (7) Gil Loescher, ‘Refugees: A Global Human Rights and Security Crisis’, in T Dunne and NJ Wheeler (eds) Human Rights in Global Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p241

    (8) See, David Chandler, ‘The Cosmopolitan Paradox’, Radical Philosophy, No.118, March/April 2003, po33-38

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    Topics Politics


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