When police demolished the illegal refugee squatter camp known as "the Jungle" in northern France in September, the French intended to make a statement that European governments were finally getting serious about stemming the constant tide of asylum seekers who have fled war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan for the continent. A month later, French and British officials have begun to forcibly deport some of the tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan refugees whose epic journeys have ended in detention camps in Europe making good on a threat they have voiced for months.
On Oct. 21, the European Commission in Brussels also took steps to address the problem from a procedural standpoint by issuing new rules for dealing with asylum seekers. Officials set a six-month time limit for governments to hold refugee application hearings and advised all 27 European Union countries to introduce the same asylum procedures, rather than wildly varying standards. Jacques Barrot, the commission's vice president, said the changes aimed to offer "a more level playing field" to the huge numbers of people from Africa, Asia and elsewhere flooding into Europe.
But as the crackdown on illegal immigrants has intensified, questions remain as to whether it will do anything to deter refugees from making the arduous trip to the continent in the first place. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said on Oct. 21 that Europe now receives 75% of the world's asylum seekers. And increasingly, these migrants are from Iraq and Afghanistan. About 13,200 Iraqis applied for asylum worldwide between January and August the largest number for a single country for the fourth year running. Afghans followed a close second.
As the Afghanistan war drags into its ninth year and the Iraq war its seventh year, the European Union faces a unique challenge in trying to stop refugees from these countries. Unlike the huge numbers of Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, Iraqi and Afghan migrants face only an overland journey though one that can take months. Once they reach the E.U., usually by crossing from Turkey into Greece, migrants can easily slip over internal E.U. borders, crossing numerous countries without detection. Many of them attempt to make it Britain, where they speak the language and have relatives. Those who are caught along the way are either sent back to their first European point of entry or put in detention camps awaiting deportation to their home country. Depending on which country they're in, the differences in treatment can be huge. "You can have two people with exactly the same story, and in one country there is less than a 1% chance of getting asylum, and in another country there's a 95% chance," says Gilles van Moortel, a spokesman in Brussels for the U.N. refugee agency.
In the past week, France and Britain have tried to take a more aggressive approach by forcibly deporting asylum seekers. At midnight on Oct. 20, a flight chartered by French and British immigration officials left Paris for Kabul, carrying 27 Afghans 24 of whom had been deported from Britain and three from France. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who visited Kabul last week, told reporters on Wednesday that "the situation of each Afghan migrant is examined individually." He added that the deportations had been conducted in accordance with international refugee conventions, and that the Afghan government had approved the flight plan.
It was a different story last week when a plane chartered by British immigration officials landed at Baghdad International Airport with about 50 illegal Iraqi migrants from British deportation facilities. Armed Iraqi soldiers stormed the plane and ordered the officials to take the Iraqis back to Britain. British newspapers described the incident as a hugely expensive blunder. Nine of the men chose to stay in Baghdad voluntarily, while the rest were flown back to immigrant jails in Britain. One of the Iraqis aboard the plane told an Iraqi refugee organization that the soldiers had ordered the British officials to "go away and not try to send people back by force again."
Refugee organizations have decried the deportation of asylum seekers to the two war-torn countries, saying it is unlikely to stop the influx of people into Europe and is possibly unethical. "There is a paradox," says Dan Hodges, director of the London-based charity Refugee Action. "We are consistently being told of the extreme nature of the military struggle against extremists and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when it comes to people seeking sanctuary, the governments' policies are more nuanced."
European officials also face a deeper question over what constitutes a refugee these days. The international refugee rules were drafted during the Cold War in order to offer asylum to those who risked individual persecution for their political or religious beliefs. That now seems dated, with migrants fleeing everything from wars to famine and ecological disasters like droughts. Still, many immigration officials have stuck to the original definition. "They say, 'You weren't really fleeing persecution, just fleeing bullets,' " says Bill Frelick, director of the Human Rights Watch refugee-policy program in Washington. "But those distinctions are rapidly fading, and people are beginning to recognize that." Even as charter flights take off from Europe, bound for Kabul and Baghdad.