For nine years the white-hulled car ferry plied the choppy waters of the English Channel, carrying British vacationers to and from the island of Jersey. But in May the British government chartered the 6,674-ton Earl William for a less conventional purpose. Moored in Harwich harbor, about 100 km northeast of London, the ferry became a floating detention centre for 49 Tamil men and women who arrived in Britain in recent months seeking political asylum. Angry and frustrated, the Tamils remain on the Earl William while immigration officials review their cases. “We came here to save our lives because of the violence in Sri Lanka,” said one of the Tamils, who refused to give his name. “But we are being treated as criminals.”
In fact, Britain is only one of several European countries that have adopted tough measures to stem the flow of people seeking political asylum. Those measures include imposing visa requirements on citizens of many Third World countries, levying fines against
airlines that carry passengers lacking necessary travel documents and swiftly deporting migrants who arrive from other countries where they were not in any physical danger. The crackdown is aimed at halting abuses of the refugee system, but human rights activists argue that even some legitimate refugees have been denied asylum. “The doors are closing all over Europe,” said Hugh Hudson, a London-based spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
Tough: Despite such criticism, most European politicians make no apologies for their tough stance on refugees. They point out that the total number of applications for refugee status in Europe increased to 204,000 in 1986 from 104,000 in 1984. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for one, declared last year that his country “is not and cannot be a country of immigration.” And in Britain, backbench Conservative MP Terry Dicks said last April that controls needed to be tightened even further to ensure that “liars, cheats and
queue jumpers” were not allowed to enter the country illegally.
West Germany, which has faced the largest influx of asylum seekers, was one of the first European countries to tighten restrictions on refugees. The country’s constitution guarantees asylum to “persons persecuted on political grounds,” a measure that has made it easier for Eastern Europeans to defect. But in 1986 West Germany received almost 100,000 asylum seekers, more than 80 per cent of whom came from Third World countries. Last October the Kohl government moved to quell a growing public outcry by asking East German officials to restrict the flow of Third World migrants crossing into West Germany from East Berlin. As a result, 22,400 asylum seekers entered the country during the first six months of 1987—less than half the total for the first half of 1986.
Fines: In the past six months West Germany, Britain and Denmark have begun to impose fines as high as $2,000 on airlines that allow passengers to travel without proper documents. The nine other members of the European Community (EC) are enacting similar measures.
But so far, the main effect of the crackdown has simply been to shift the burden elsewhere. According to Jonas Widgren, UNHCR’s co-ordinator of intergovernmental consultations in Geneva, the European countries experiencing the largest increases in asylum seekers this year are Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland, each of which still takes a relatively lenient approach to people claiming refugee status. Said Widgren: “We’re very worried. Any decision taken by one country has an automatic effect on its neighbors.”
Victim: As the controversy increases, however, refugee workers in Europe voice fears that they are losing the battle for public opinion. “Of course there is some abuse of the system, but the amount is grossly exaggerated,” said Philip Rudge, general secretary of the London-based European Consultation on Refugees and Exiles.
Rudge, whose group represents 45 human rights organizations across Europe, said that the widespread lack of sympathy for refugees is compounded by the fact that the EC committee established to investigate the asylum problem is also trying to halt terrorism and international drug trafficking. Said Rudge: “There’s an embedded fear in the public mind that refugees are bad news, and that if you let them in you are asking for trouble. When you think about it, that sort of attitude is really a case of blaming the victim.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.