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UN Welcomes Move to Coordinate European Asylum Policies - 2002-04-28

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it welcomes new measures proposed by European Union ministers to coordinate asylum policies among member states. But the UNHCR says it is concerned that some provisions of the proposal could leave some asylum seekers destitute.

The refugee agency says the proposed European Union measures, which is due to take effect from 2004, should guarantee a uniform package of benefits for asylum seekers.

UNHCR Spokesman Ron Redmond calls the proposal one more important step in bringing greater coherence to asylum policy in the European Union, because it lays down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, and offers them some vital protections.

"In particular, UNHCR is pleased to note the detailed sections of the directive regulating access to health care and education, to the provision of identity documents and vital information on asylum procedures, including the availability of legal assistance." said Mr. Redmond. "In addition, there are important sections of the directive that require EU states to take special measures for vulnerable individuals, including victims of torture or violence, unaccompanied children, pregnant women and the disabled."

However, Mr. Redmond says the UNHCR is concerned about provisions that would allow too much scope for exceptions. For example, he says, the proposal would allow countries to withhold benefits from asylum seekers considered uncooperative. Spokesman Redmond says basic essentials, including food and shelter, must always be assured. He says reducing asylum seekers to a state of destitution serves no useful purpose, and could have serious and undesirable consequences.

"We feel the decision by the EU states not to harmonize the very different national policies and practices regarding access to employment, for example, is a drawback," explained Mr. Redmond, "particularly at a time when many states are talking about labor deficits and are also concerned about the costs of supporting asylum seekers through a sometimes lengthy asylum process."

Mr. Redmond says the new measures outlined by the EU interior ministers should put an end to so-called "asylum shopping." Under this practice, asylum seekers move from country-to-country looking for the best conditions.