Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Kosovo’s Refugees in the European Union - Book Review


Book Review, November 2004


Kosovo’s Refugees in the European Union, London: Pinter, 2000, 239 pp

edited by Joanne van Selm[1]

Chapter 7, pp139-161

Italy: gateway to Europe, but not the gatekeeper? by Christopher Hein

Chapter 8, pp162-188

France: international norms, European integration and state discretion by Sandra Lavenex

It would be extremely hard to find a political analyst today who does not think that the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s produced some of the most horrific and brutal forms of genocide since the 2nd world war. In February 1998, after the Bosnian conflict had calmed down, Serbian paramilitary groups and Yugoslav security forces intensified their attacks on Kosovar Albanians who were blamed for cooperating with the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army). The ‘ethnic cleansing’, which reached its brutal peak a year later, provoked NATO’s military intervention against Yugoslavia’s army, police and Serbian paramilitary forces in Kosovo. By this time, thousands of Kosovar Albanians had been massacred, 426,000 crossed the border into Albania, 228,000 to Macedonia (FYROM) and around 45,000 to Montenegro. In addition, 260,000 Albanians were internally displaced and over 100,000 had already sought political asylum in western European countries. It is estimated that by the end of bombing the entire 1,8m Albanian population of Kosovo had been displaced, internally and externally.

Joanne van Selm in “Kosovo’s Refugees in the European Union” analyses the reactions of several EU members towards this genocide which resulted in one of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis at the end of the 20th century.

It is my intent to produce a critical review of two chapters (Italy and France) in the light of the greater purpose of the book. I will discuss the insights and research that each chapter brings to the reader and evaluate the methodology and accuracy of the information presented. While offering a critical approach within the general intent of the book, I will judge the academic contribution made to the field of asylum research.

The book, which is a collection of chapters written by different researchers and edited by Joanne van Selm, approaches the Kosovar asylum cases within a developing common EU immigration and asylum policy. It analyses the management of crisis by seven EU states and reflects on how the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees has (or has not) been implemented in each country. Both Italy and France are very interesting cases when writing about Kosovar Albanian refugees. Italy, owing much to its geographical proximity to the region, and France, because of its long and proud tradition of “terre d’asile”.

As Christopher Hein points out in his chapter “Italy: gateway to Europe, but not the gatekeeper?”, it would be hard to analyse Italy’s reaction to the Kosovo crisis without considering the country’s proximity to the Balkans. Above all, Hein discusses the reception of the Kosovar refugees within a wider internal transformation of Italy, that is, the evolution from “emigration” to “immigration” country.

The author gives a profound overview of the dramatic changes that Italy has undergone through the way in which it has handled refugee crisis since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Of particular interest is the fact that since 1986, Italy has periodically been regularizing illegal aliens through a series of ad-hoc labour amnesties which subsequently have produced a low number of asylum seekers in the country. This explains why in Hein’s view, “an unknown number of de facto refugees prefer to make use of the regularization opportunity… rather than undergo the tiresome and uncertain asylum procedure”. This might also explain the low interest of the public opinion in the asylum cases. While a large part of the chapter is concerned with Italy’s legal background instead of Kosovar refugee’s reception, Hein’s discussion is helpful when explaining how the 1951 Geneva Convention was overshadowed by the 1990’s, period when a series of ad-hoc rules were developed to deal with specific refugee crisis. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Italy strongly promoted the idea of “reception in the region” (this largely meant Albania) and stressed that it did not want to encourage any “ethnic cleansing” by a large reception of Kosovar refugees in the country. Instead, the Italian government would support the Albanian state in the creation of reception centres. The author correctly points to the illegal smuggling of Kosovar refugees by Albanian groups through the Adriatic, although this traffic was a small part of the broader crisis. This, together with daily TV images of Kosovar refugees forced to leave their homes and cross the border into Albania or Macedonia provoked a hugely influential wave of public solidarity which then, forced the Italian government to join other European countries in pledging to receive a quota of 10,000 persons. (Who would be evacuated from camps in Macedonia).

Christopher Hein[2] is no stranger to the important role family and friends play in the refugee’s preferred destination for asylum. “In fact, a considerable number of Kosovar refugees had used Italy only as a transit country in order to reach Switzerland, Germany or, to a lesser degree, other European countries”, he writes when placing the Kosovars into the wider context of “labour immigration” in Germany or Switzerland. The Albanian, Italian and German press was full of stories of “illegal immigrants” smuggled through the Otranto channel into the southern coast of Italy and then transported to the destination country. By placing the Italian reception of Kosovar refugees within the greater process of European integration, the author raises highly important questions about the influence of European security concerns on national agendas and internal political debates.

Sandra Levenex[3] raises similar concerns in her chapter “France: international norms, European integration and state discretion”. While France kept a low profile during the Kosovo crisis, the French government has always been eager to remind other nations of its proud historical role as “terre d’asile”. Although France differs from Italy in that it has the longest tradition of refugee protection among European states, Lavenex provides convincing proof of its government’s preference on the concept of temporary protection rather than that of the 1951 Convention.

Through further consideration of France’s past experiences with refugees coming from violent regions, such as the case of the Algerians, Lavenex highlights the dominant role these cases played in shaping secondary forms of temporary protection when dealing with Kosovar refugees. Through observation of several ad-hoc measures taken by the French government, one can quickly see how this leads to the more hidden effect that the political discourse on societal security and immigration has in the wider decisions concerning asylum seekers. In the Kosovo case, the political discourse was overwhelmed by another factor. As one can confirm through various humanitarian organisations[4], the “pressure of public opinion” exercised upon the government (as it was also evident in Italy), forced France’s agreement to admit between 5000 and 10,000 Kosovar refugees.

Although upon the arrival of 6339 refugees from camps in Macedonia the government broadly accepted their legitimate refugee status, their legal status was initially uncertain and a series of ad-hoc rules were applied. But as the author rightly observes, “informality, variability and executive discretion – continued to shape the French reaction to the arrival of Bosnian refugees in the early 1990s and still mark the approach towards people fleeing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo”. The powerful comparison between the self perception of “terre d’asile” and the recent “asylum as a threat to society and national culture” syndrome, underlines the paradox of France as a confused country within an increasingly paranoid EU setting where the 1951 Geneva Convention is constantly being challenged. This contradiction is underlined by the 1993 law on “territorial asylum” which was no longer based upon the 1951 Convention terms. As Lavenex underlines, (temporary protection) “was not, however, an answer to the increasing reality of war and civil war as causes of refugee flows”. In the author’s view, “…the French reaction seems to be disappointing”.

These two chapters (as the rest of the book) do an excellent job in describing the institutionalization of ad-hoc, temporary forms of protection applied by EU states when faced with specific refugee crisis. As the two researchers clearly demonstrate, refugee situations such as that of Bosnia, manage to get all EU countries to commit to a harmonization of asylum policies, however, no common EU policy was applied when the Kosovo crisis followed. The insights on national debates of France and Italy offer solid evidential basis for Van Selm’s broader theoretical discussion on societal security, xenophobia and comprehensive approach.

In both cases of Italy and France, immigration and asylum are seen as increasing threats to their societies which has given rise to a national xenophobia about asylum seekers. While public solidarity overwhelms this xenophobia during extreme crisis such as that of Kosovo, “illegals” and “organized crime” remain everyday terms within the larger national political debates and continue to have an impact on the progress of a common EU approach to asylum and immigration matters. Although Italy and France accepted that the Kosovar refugees fell well under the terms of asylum, both governments applied the alternative forms of protection while undermining the refugee rights guaranteed by the 1951 Convention.

If the book is strong in providing a detailed overview of the legal framework, what Hein and Lavenex lack, is a deeper discussion on whether recent new forms of ad-hoc asylum rules should or can start a European debate on the “international norms” which characterize the 1951 Geneva Convention. Should this Convention be revised in the light of recent refugee crisis and if not, why is a common EU asylum policy needed?

Moreover, the authors fail to consider one other important factor, the opinions of thousands of Kosovar refugees whose very protection is being approached in a theoretical matter. Could one talk of asylum laws and fail to take into account the very central component of asylum, the “seeker” himself?

However, while the title can be deceiving, “Kosovo’s Refugees in the European Union” as a whole offers a comprehensive understanding of the asylum policies and its implementation by EU governments. It is evident that its contribution to the further progress of asylum research is invaluable.

Primary Online Sources

UNHCR, The state of the world’s refugees, 2000, http://www.unhcr.ch/

CIR Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati, http://www.cir-onlus.org/

The Economist, http://www.economist.com/

Forum Refugies France, http://www.forumrefugies.org/

The Guardian,

Gazeta Shekulli, http://www.shekulli.com.al/

Gazeta Shqiptare, http://www.balkanweb.com/

Institute for War & Peace Reporting, http://www.iwpr.net/

Amnesty International, http://www.amnesty.org/

[1] Joanne van Selm is Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington DC based think tank
devoted to the study of international migration. Dr van Selm is also affiliated as an Associate Professor to the University of Amsterdam's Department of Political Science.

[2] Christopher Hein is Director of the Italian Refugee Council, Rome, Italy.

[3] Sandra Lavenex is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

[4] Look at http://www.forumrefugies.org/

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