Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

Refugees, immigration and Europe M I G R A T I O N:
Shifting Borders, Shifting Roles
Asylum in Central and Eastern Europe
Pavel Tychtl

Ten years ago it would have been absurd to talk about asylum in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as since the late 1930s the countries of this region were major producers of asylum-seekers themselves. First Nazism and later Communism made many Central Europeans flee their countries and seek safe haven in Western Europe, North America and Australia. However, this, to a very large extent politically motivated, migration was not the first massive wave of emigration from Central Europe westwards. During most of the 19th century and especially its second half, hundreds of thousands of Central Europeans left their countries of origin to establish themselves in countries such as the United States and Canada. This trend continues even today. According to the latest statistics, 650,000 Bulgarians have left their country over the last ten years, most of whom were between the ages of 30 and 40 with higher education and qualifications. This Bulgarian migration, as well as the current migration from other CEE countries is, unlike the pre-1989 migration, for the most part motivated by factors other than political reasons.

Political changes in Central and East European countries also had a major impact on Western Europe with respect to asylum issues. According to UNHCR sources, "Until the early 1980s, Europe received less than 100,000 asylum-seekers a year. Around 70 per cent came form Eastern Europe. They were, for the most part, rapidly granted asylum and easily integrated." Ironically, the number of asylum-seekers in Western Europe has not decreased following the political changes of 1989, but on the contrary, according to the UNHCR, "Reached a peak of nearly 700,000 in 1992." Many asylum-seekers came from continents other than Europe. West European states reacted with stricter border controls and the introduction of restrictive measures such as the "safe country of origin" and "safe third country" principles. Some European countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands even compiled explicit lists of countries which they consider as "safe," that is, countries where asylum-seekers do not have to fear persecution as there is established rule of law and democratic institutions and procedures exist. This list is sometimes used in a very pragmatic fashion, as in the case of Finland, which, fearing refugees from neighbouring Russia, considers it a safe country of origin. In a similar fashion, the United Kingdom included Pakistan and India on the list.

Other restrictive measures such as visas, carrier sanctions for those who bring refugees to Western Europe and pre-checks in the countries of origin were introduced in the mid-1990s, making it very difficult for many asylum-seekers to reach Europe. All these new measures worked rather well, so that the number of asylum-seekers in Europe dropped by almost 50 per cent by the end of the 90s. European non-governmental organisations advocating the rights of asylum-seekers have been alarmed by this development and have raised the question of whether the very institution of asylum in Europe will survive past the year 2000.

Yet, recently, European governments confirmed their "absolute respect for the right of asylum" and claimed that "nobody will be sent back to persecution." This is very important, as it often seems that the principles on which the European legislation on refugees, most importantly the Geneva Convention of 1951, are based are fading. European NGOs have on many occasions stressed that the underlying principles of humane and fair asylum policy cannot be compromised for higher living standards. The Geneva Convention of 1951 is still the cornerstone of such a policy.

Central European states are in a difficult position. On one hand, they need to create adequate reception conditions and administrative and legal procedures, which make it possible to receive asylum claims and process them as well as put into place an integration system for those who have received asylum and return schemes for those who have not. On the other hand, they have to face the fact that many asylum-seekers are on their way to West European states and see Central Europe as a transit region. Central European states are pressured by their EU counterparts - especially those EU states which receive the majority of refugees such as Germany, the United Kingdom but also neighbouring states such as Austria - to control migration and implement the very same restrictive measures that have been applied in Western Europe. This development is already taking place, as "safe country of origin" and "third safe country" principles are being introduced into newly drafted asylum laws in CEE countries. The German government provided DM 80 million to Polish Police and DM 60 million to Czech Police to improve border control. It is clear that strict immigration control will be among the most important criteria for Central European states' membership in the EU.

There is not much room for Central European refugee organisations in this situation. However, it is crucial that they take part in the advocacy activities of their colleagues in EU countries, as is already happening in the case of the Central European refugee organisations working through the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) - the European umbrella organisation of Central and West European NGOs. It is important that Central European NGOs do not just provide social services to refugees, not questioning some of the recent developments happening on a broader both regional and Europe-wide scale. Through their EU NGO counterparts, they can learn and acquire skills of lobbying and advocacy and use these skills both at the present time but more importantly in the future after some of the CEE states join EU.

In Central Europe it is often thought that EU asylum policy is perfect, and the only thing Central European states need to do is harmonise and thus bring their asylum standards to the same level as that of EU countries. However, this is a myth. Not only is there to this date no harmonised policy within the EU, but there is a very lively and diverse debate going on regarding asylum policy. This debate does not exist in most Central European countries or exists only at a very rudimentary level. The moment Central Europeans enter EU, they will have to join this debate, and they should not come empty-handed. There will always be a cleavage between those who stress immigration control at the expense of the protection of legitimate rights of asylum-seekers fleeing persecution and refugee-rights advocates who favour more liberal asylum policies. Central Europeans need to make up their own mind and contribute to the already existing debate.

Pavel Tychtl, 29 October 1999

The author is the director of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees in the Czech Republic.



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