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Baroness Williams of Crosby: I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and to explore, if I may, the Government's intention with regard to the words "in general". The noble Lord referred in particular to India. Perhaps I may detain the House for a moment with one or two personal reflections about when I was in India at a conference conducted by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation with regard to the launching of the new Indian Commission on Human Rights. That is a very welcome development and many of us are pleased that there is such a commission.
One of the issues which has particularly concerned the Indian Commission on Human Rights is the number of people involved in peaceful and non-violent activities--there are also violent activities--with regard to the issue of the future status of Kashmir. In a public report the Indian Commission on Human Rights drew attention to its concerns about the way some people who supported the different constitutional settlement in Kashmir had been detained and in some cases very badly treated in police stations in that area. That is not a piece of evidence from somebody from outside that country, but from a concerned local citizen--someone, if I may say so, at a high level of standing in the country.
The other personal observation I want to make concerns a country also on the white list; namely, Romania. Perhaps the Minister will tell us a little more about the force of the words "in general" in that regard. In my capacity as a director of an organisation called Project Liberty, which is concerned with building democratic institutions in Eastern Europe, I have visited Romania on many occasions. Unquestionably, it is a country which is struggling its way towards democracy, and I would not want to suggest anything that would discourage that, but there is one substantial group of Romanian citizens which it is widely agreed has suffered serious disadvantages and in some cases
Many organisations in this country, specifically Amnesty International, the Refugee Council, and others, have been concerned about the treatment of Roma people in Romania. This is a matter that has been raised also, as the noble Baroness will know, in the Council of Europe on more than one occasion with regard to the attempt to try to build up a new treaty on the treatment of minorities. I would therefore be extremely grateful if the noble Baroness could say something about countries which are "in general", I agree, countries which cannot be associated with systematic persecution, but where there may be a particular minority, religious or ethnic, which cannot be regarded as being treated in a way that we would regard as appropriate for full citizens. I would particularly like to draw her attention to the cases of the Kashmiri dissidents in India and the Roma people in Romania, without delaying the House by giving details of some extremely harrowing instances of treatment in both cases.
Lord Avebury: Perhaps it might save time if I spoke on this amendment to the question of Bulgaria on which I have a separate amendment later. It relates to the problems of minorities, which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has raised and upon which my noble friend Lady Williams has now expanded in referring to the particular case of the Roma, which is not unique to Romania but also extends into Bulgaria.
I could not understand why Bulgaria should be put on the designation list when I thought about the human rights problems that exist there. They have been clearly identified by the US State Department and by Human Rights Watch and many others. I remind the Committee that Human Rights Watch said:
Human Rights Watch drew attention also to the restrictions on the free expression and association of people identified as ethnic Macedonians. The leaders of the United Macedonian Organisation, OMO Ilinden, were banned from meeting and that ban was upheld by the courts. It mentioned that 45 religious organisations have been refused registration since 1994 when a new law was passed forbidding non-profit-making organisations from operating without official permission. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee says that there is a "religious witch-hunt" against certain minor sects. It cites cases of police searches for religious literature and even of individuals being dismissed from their posts because they belonged to the wrong faith.
Judge Alexey I Ivanof of the Regional Court of Sofia, testifying before a congressional committee on 27th November 1995, said that although Protestants had been part of Bulgaria for over 150 years, they often feel as though they are second-class citizens.
When I sent a copy of the annual report of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee to the Minister who deals with human rights, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, asking for his observations and drawing his specific attention to the closure of a Moslem group, the persecution of the Roma and the restrictions placed on religious groups, and suggesting that the OSCE's High Commissioner for National Minorities should take a look at the position, he made no comments about the substantive allegations that appeared in the report. He remarked that, since the HCNM's mandate was to give early warning of minority problems which may lead to conflict, his omission to visit Bulgaria made it appear that he did not consider that it was the case; that there was no likelihood of the persecution of minorities there escalating into an actual conflict.
I pointed out that the HCNM took a much broader view of his mandate; that he had visited 11 countries in the spring and summer of 1995 and that he went to Bulgaria in 1994. I emphasised too that the important question was whether or not the allegations made by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee of discrimination against minorities such as the ethnic Turks and Roma were true and whether the perpetrators of racist violence were seldom, if ever, prosecuted, as alleged.
The Minister replied that he did not wish to cast doubt on the committee's findings, nor to dismiss as insignificant the problems that minorities experienced in Bulgaria. He suggested that I pass the information on to the HCNM which would pursue it in confidence. In other words, he was saying that the case made out was not proven and needed to be examined. If that is the case, it is difficult to imagine why Bulgaria should be included on the list and whether or not the proposals should have been kept in abeyance until further and better particulars were obtained.
Some of the matters raised are susceptible to verification without a great deal of research. The facts in regard to the persecution of the original Moslem community under their chief mufti, Fikri Sali, are that he was unceremoniously dismissed by the government and replaced by a gentleman called Nedim Gendjev, who had been the leader of the Moslems during the communist regime and the faithful stooge of the dictator Tordor Zhivkov. He did not dare put his own name forward as the chief mufti, but was appointed as the President of the Supreme Religious Council by a national conference convened by irregular means on 3rd November 1994. A former sergeant major of the Labour Corps, Hadji Basri Hadjisherif, was appointed chief mufti. Those people had no religious training whatever and neither did the journalist named Dobroudjaliev who was appointed director of the Islamic Institute.
The government therefore swept away the hierarchy of the Moslem faith that existed after religious freedom had been restored in 1989, and replaced it with the people who had been the stooges of the old communist dictatorship. I should like to know whether the kind of situation that we face in Bulgaria, where there is no doubt at all that religious and ethnic minorities suffer serious persecution, means that there is no persecution
It would be helpful if the Minister could deal with that point in her reply. It may save time later on if we know precisely what the connection is between the words "in general" which appear on the face of the clause, and the decision to place specific countries like Bulgaria on the designation list.
Baroness Blatch: One of the difficulties, I suspect, that we shall encounter as we go through the course of the day, is that there is a great deal of repetition in relation to some of the subjects. Specific amendments are tabled discussing specific countries, and I shall do what I can not to continue to go over that ground for the purposes of responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, with regard to the point made about oppressed minorities within a country. However, for the moment I shall address the argument in relation to the words "in general".
Clause 1 provides for the designation of countries where it appears to the Secretary of State that there is in general no serious risk of persecution. That involves making a judgment as to whether the general risk of persecution in a particular country is sufficiently low to warrant designation. Amendment No. 4 would delete the words "in general". However, those words are necessary in order to make clear that the assessment being made is of the level of risk in a country rather than the risk to an individual. As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said, there may be individual cases in which a serious risk is established. Indeed, although there is currently a very high refusal rate for the countries we regard as candidates for designation, asylum or exceptional leave have been granted in a small number of cases. It does not follow from this that designation is inappropriate. The words "in general" are needed in order to make that clear.
It is entirely right that applicants from countries where conditions are not in general unsafe and which produce large numbers of asylum seekers but very few genuine refugees should be asked to show that there are exceptional circumstances in their case.
It has been suggested that the words "in general" would allow the Secretary or State to designate a country where a majority of the population was not at risk but which was seriously persecuting minority groups within it. That is patently not a tenable interpretation of the Bill. The wording clearly rules out designation of any country where there is a significant level of persecution, even if it is targeted at minorities. Our list of candidates for designation excludes a number of countries which generate large numbers of unfounded asylum claims, but in which there are nevertheless sufficient concerns about human rights that the requirement of the Bill is not met. Nigeria is an obvious example.
The criteria that we use are that the country generates a significant number of asylum applicants; that the applications from that country prove to be unfounded in a high proportion of cases, but that there is, in general, no persecution. We would use again as factors, stability of the country, the state's adherence to international human rights instruments, its democratic institutions, elections and political pluralism, freedom of expression by individuals and the media, and availability and effectiveness of legal avenues of protection and redress. It must be said that every individual case, irrespective of whether or not it is a designated country, is still considered on its merits.
I turn to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. The situation in the countries we intend to designate is one of substantial safety and security. That does not mean that they are entirely without problems or that genuine cases of persecution will never arise. It would be unrealistic to insist on universal safety and, indeed, such a requirement is unnecessary given the safeguards which will continue to apply under the Bill.
Designation will allow us to deal more quickly and more effectively with the great majority of applicants who do not qualify for asylum. That must be in the interests of genuine asylum seekers. But the procedures used will allow exceptional cases, such as the small number from the seven countries who qualified for asylum last year, to be selected for more detailed consideration. Of course, all refused claims will continue to attract a right of appeal to an independent adjudicator.
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