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Opinions of Saturday, 17 May 2003

Columnist: Ablorh-Odjidja, E.

Asylum Centers in Africa?

The UK government, in conjunction with the European Union, is planning centers in Africa for political asylum seekers. On the surface, the plan might sound like a good idea. But, is it really the best way to tackle the problem?

Who qualifies as an asylum seeker is, perhaps, best described by a statement from the US Immigration Services: Those who left their countries “fleeing the fear (they) had for personal safety for reasons that could be; political motives, race problems, religious beliefs, for belonging to a particular group…”

Political motives, race problems, religious strife and you are talking about Africa more than anywhere else. This continent is the incubator for some of the shoddier human rights problems.

Refugees driven out by war are still mostly in camps in Africa, having very little to afford transportation to Europe. Therefore, our object is about those driven to Europe by grinding oppression and political persecution. For these, political asylum centers in Africa?

Some cynics would respond, where else?

Well, Europe is anxious to stem the asylum problem on her continent. The Times of UK reported on May 8, 2003 that “Beverley Hughes, the Immigration Minister, told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that the proposals for easing the pressure of asylum applications had generated "warm interest" around the European Union.”

The question now is how Africa would react to the proposal under study.

Already, according to Ms. Hughes, there “had been dialogue on the proposals with countries interested in taking advantage of such a scheme, and countries interested in hosting such centres.”

Be sure there will be a leader somewhere in Africa who will either be willing or can be pressured to accept the asylum center in his country.

Almost anything has been offered or dumped on Africa in the past century; aged laboratory monkeys, ship load of garbage, used clothes and even radioactive waste. Humans should therefore be least objectionable.

In 1988, Guinea-Bissau had a $600 million dollar contract, many times more than her gross national product at the time, from European and America companies to dispose off some million tons of toxic wastes over a period of five years. Why? Because developed countries always provided “waste-for-money” incentives.

The tendency should not in any sense equate asylum seekers with garbage.

For those Africans affected by political conditions at home and in exile in Europe today, many would sooner have the abuses in their own countries ended rather than go into exile in another country, Europe or Africa.

Most asylum seekers will tell you that the process very often strips them of their pride and sometimes their humanity.

A few points to consider about these proposed centers:

First, asylum centers can be hostels of compassion. For how long is another matter. But the duration of stay and the negative life experiences in many refugee camps spread over the world today do not make the prospect encouraging.

Second, the initiative placates the political mood of present Europe. After years of harboring political asylum seekers, Europe has grown weary.

Third, the center will give tyrants, especially in African countries, a pass. In or outside Africa, the asylums will act as valves to provide relief from internal political pressures.

Fourth, and perhaps the most vicious, visible acceptance of these centers may worsen the abuse. For the slightest reason, "trouble makers” may be forced to face offers they cannot refuse (your life on death row or your life in asylum center), now that political exile has acquired a face lift.

The victim accepts the offer and is shipped out; out of sight, out of mind, and into a virtual political detention camp of a sort outside his or her country!

The solution offered under this scheme, whether Europe understands it or not, is like sticking band-aid on a festering wound.

Yes, there is no denying that the problem exists; however, this European plan carries the risk of more dependency for Africa - for people who, supposedly, have been freed of the colonial yoke.

Some African leaders may rush to accept the concept for the financial inducement that may come with the offer, rather than the merit. The likelihood that these same may perpetuate or exaggerate the problem in order to maintain its money earning viability for their individual selfish ends may also increase with the popularity of the program; thereby further deepening Africa’s dependency.

The idea is attractive only in the sense that it should kick the African Union (AU) into action to pursue the much talked about African unity in more concrete terms; help victims who are oppressed in their own countries find citizenship in another African country.

Africa has seen the issue of human rights abuses grow, as wars and bad governance erupt on the continent. There are places on the continent where people are even “displaced” in their own countries!

Europe, because of her involvement with Africa and her own human rights issues since World War II, has not been stranger to the problem. Europeans have had liberal asylum policies; Germany, Britain, Sweden and France among them. The Germans, mostly because of their treatment of Jews under the Nazis, were probably the most liberal. But with unification in Germany and troubles within the European economy, the outlook on asylum has become grimmer recently.

“The plans (for political asylum) would involve establishing centres, possibly in Africa, where asylum seekers wanting to settle in EU countries would stay while their applications were determined.” The times continued.

Most Europeans will be happy to shift the asylum problem elsewhere. The solution being offered as "half-way houses" will likely be executed mostly through diplomatic duress and economic bribery, with no sincere concern about assuaging the problem in Africa.

Rather than pretend that those human rights abuses are peculiarities of African culture, Europeans should be called upon to own part of the problem and to do the right thing.

In order to rule Africa, Europeans destabilized many cultures and people on the continent; they created political boundaries that sheared people from each other; formulated trade policies that today impoverish Africa. To this day they continue to condone corruption among African leaders; and have done little to encourage African unity.

But back to The Times report: “The first out-of-EU asylum seeker processing centre could be operating by the end of the year..” That soon and this quick!

In spite of the fa?ade of compassion, this plan is in a hurry to overlook some inherent hazards : The probability that the centers may be permanent despite all assurances; the chance of asylum seekers becoming second class citizenship in a third country, howbeit in Africa, or the possibility that a perception of economic privilege may stir up resentment among the poor of the host country against the center, thereby worsening the problem some more - these are factors that may have been overlooked.

Ms. Hughes was reported to have said that there was a "general consensus” that the asylum concept is not working too well in Europe and that "There has to be a better way."

Sure, the better way is certainly not asylum centers in Africa as presently formulated. There is more to do.

And here is where the AU must come in. Barring wars, African countries that drive their dissidents into exile should be prepared to accept reciprocal number from other countries, with privileges as honorary citizens (as exemplified by the US Green Card program), and additional rights to carry on their dissent activities while in exile.


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