June 1996 - June 1997
the 6th Ministerial Session
Riga 2-3 July 1997
The Commissioner of the Council of the Baltic Sea States
on Democratic Institutions and Human Rights,
including the Rights of Persons belonging to Minorities
3.2 ISSUES RELATED TO THE 1951 UN CONVENTION RELATING TO THE STATUS OF REFUGEES AND THE 1967 PROTOCOL
I corresponded with the Latvian and Estonian authorities, encouraging them to ratify the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and to pass necessary laws on refugees. I also contacted some CBSS member states regarding other questions relevant to the 1951 UN Convention.
In my opinion, a comprehensive solution to the problem of refugees is only possible through multilateral cooperation. In this respect, I am pleased to note on-going successful cooperation between the Nordic and Baltic countries.
Furthermore, the signing of bilateral or multilateral readmission agreements would certainly be another positive step towards cooperation on refugee problems in our region. Therefore, during my visits to Russia, I encouraged the Russian authorities to take the necessary steps towards signing readmission agreements with the Baltic states. I also raised this topic during meetings with representatives of the Baltic countries.
Some recommendations related to the status of refugees were also made in my surveys. In the Survey on the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with Regard to Specific Articles, I concentrated on the specific problems facing the children of asylum seekers and recommended that member states consider the introduction of primary education for these children.
In communications with the Estonian Government, I recommended on several occasions early ratification of the Convention, and inquired into progress on the elaboration of a national refugee law.
I was pleased to learn that, on 18 February 1997, the Estonian Parliament adopted a refugee law and, on the following day, ratified the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Estonian refugee law bases its definition of a refugee on the UN Convention of 1951 and regulates the order of applying for asylum, the determination procedures and social and legal guarantees of refugees.
During meetings and in my letters to the Latvian authorities, I have recommended early ratification of the UN Convention and adoption of national laws on refugees. In response, I have been informed by the Latvian Government of major initiatives in this field.
A draft law on refugees and accession to the Convention was submitted to the Parliament on 29 November 1996. The Co-operation Council of the Latvian Government approved urgent ratification of the Convention and adoption of the Refugee law on 16 April 1997. Adoption of the law is expected in June 1997. It is anticipated that the Convention may be signed and ratified following a trial period after adoption of the Law on Refugees.
I also continued my correspondence with the Latvian Government regarding the situation of asylum seekers in Olaine prison. I have repeatedly called for a speedy solution to the detention of this group of asylum seekers, which I considered to be in violation of international law. As mentioned in my previous annual report, I wrote to the Ministers for Foreign Affairs in some of the member states urging them to make a joint effort in this case and to share the responsibility for accepting the resettlement of these asylum seekers.
In December 1996, a Nordic-UNHCR-Latvian agreement on resettlement to Nordic countries of refugees from Olaine was announced. According to the agreement, Sweden received 52 asylum seekers, Denmark 25, Finland 20 and Norway 11. In their ensuing statement the Ministers of the Nordic countries stressed that this resettlement was an extraordinary measure and assumed that Latvia will adopt and implement refugee legislation according to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
I was advised that by April 1997, only a few individuals whose claim to refugee
status had been rejected in a determination procedure remained. I am informed
that the Latvian Government is seeking a permanent solution to these cases.
I maintained a correspondence with the Swedish authorities regarding the detention of asylum seekers. During my visit to Sweden in 1995, I was informed that, in some cases, asylum seekers are deprived of their liberty whilst their applications are being processed and that they were detained with persons suspected or convicted of ordinary crimes. Although I was given to understand that this was only the case for a limited number of asylum seekers, I opened communication with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sweden regarding this problem.
Referring to the UNHCR EXCOM Conclusion No. 44, I noted that a person who is neither suspected nor convicted of a crime should not be held with persons detained as common criminals in ordinary prisons. However, there may be cases where a person seeking asylum is deprived of his liberty because he poses a danger or threat to his surroundings but, even then, he should be kept in a special centre.
In my letters to the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, I recommended that urgent steps be taken to ensure that persons detained under the aliens legislation were not held in prison premises.
I have noted with satisfaction the changes in the Swedish legislation regarding the detention of asylum seekers. As I was informed by the Swedish authorities, according to the Budget and Finance Bill (1996/97:1) and the new Bill on Migration: Swedish Migration Policy in a Global Perspective (1996/97:25), responsibility for persons detained under the Aliens Act was transferred from the police authorities to the Swedish Immigration Board. This means that detainees should be accommodated in special premises run by the Immigration Board.