Refugees Facing Stigmatization, Warns Holy See

Archbishop Tomasi Addresses U.N. Committee

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GENEVA, OCT. 11, 2005 ( Mindful of the growing number of detention centers for asylum-seekers in Europe and elsewhere, a Holy See representative warned about «stigmatizing» asylum-seekers and refugees as «irregular migrants» and even «criminals.»

These last two categories exist of course, acknowledged Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva.

But the risk of labeling asylum-seekers and refugees in this way «can lead to a dehumanizing, emotional and not disinterested simplification of the asylum and migration nexus,» said the prelate in a statement last Wednesday to the Executive Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

«This policy of detention raises questions of a humanitarian, human rights and also juridical and legal nature,» he warned. «There are real concerns about its becoming a systematic policy to which many countries resort to, more as a rule than an exception, that is prompted by national order and security.»

«Of course, states have a right to manage the movement of peoples across their borders,» Archbishop Tomasi acknowledged. But «a renewed open and participatory reflection on the ethics of detention may be in order with greater focus on possible alternatives.»

Lack of services

Detention centers now have a range of problems, he said. «The average conditions of detention show, in different degrees and places, staff inadequately trained, a mixing up of children and adults, elderly persons and women, and at times asylum-seekers and common criminals,» the prelate said.

There is also a «lack of access to basic services and to education,» he added.

In the public eye, Archbishop Tomasi continued, «the distinction is not easily made between detention, arbitrary detention, and administrative detention so that asylum-seekers and irregular migrants are associated with criminals, an image that feeds racist and xenophobic behavior and is a deterrent to integration.»

Moreover, a long period of detention makes social integration more difficult, in addition to leaving «scars» in people «who have already suffered hardship and abuse prior to arriving in countries where they are detained,» the Holy See representative said.

On Sunday, speaking on Vatican Radio, Archbishop Tomasi contended that «the policy of many countries is to relegate to detention centers persons who seek asylum.»

He added that there must be no confusion between asylum-seekers and «irregular migrants, that is, persons who seek to enter a country simply because they want work or a better situation in life.»

200-plus centers

The prelate noted that «between Portugal and Ukraine there are more than 200 of these detention centers.» And he asked: «How can the right of asylum be maintained for persons who really need it» in order to avoid «total confusion between the different types of persons who seek to enter the territory of the more developed countries?»

He further asked: «Once these persons are in these detention centers, how can their fundamental rights be protected? How can one act to ensure that they have enough food, that they have the right to receive visitors, and that there is access to pastoral, medical, etc., agents?»

In his statement to the Executive Committee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees the prelate pointed out that «if national security demands that in exceptional cases asylum-seekers should be detained, it should be under well-defined criteria and for the shortest possible time.»

However, he insisted, «the search for alternatives and for constructive solutions cannot weaken the right to seek asylum. History shows that a policy of only control heightens the vulnerability of asylum seekers and their risk of exploitation.»

«The present challenge consists in reducing the gap in the quality of life between developed and developing countries,» the archbishop said. «A more comprehensive understanding of security can provide the will to address the root causes, both political and economic, which push large numbers of people crisscrossing the globe looking for protection, survival and a decent life.»

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