In terms of numbers, there is no doubt that INTERPOL is growing fast. In 2011, it issued 7,678 Red Notices - 'wanted person' alerts, which inform police and border agents across the world that a person is wanted in a certain country. The figure has more than quintupled since 2001.
However, as the recent cases of Sayed Abdel Latif and Mukhtar Ablyazov have showed, the increasing recourse to INTERPOL's systems is having a dramatic impact upon the institution of asylum, leaving some important unanswered questions about how Red Notices affect refugees.
Syed Abdel Latif is the Egyptian national who sparked an international media storm after he claimed asylum in Australia. Checking his name against INTERPOL's databases, the Federal Police spotted a Red Notice stating that he was wanted to serve prison sentences in Egypt for convictions for murder and terrorist violent crimes. Cue public outcry at a dangerous man living in a family asylum centre.
However, Latif's lawyers dug around, and discovered that he had, in fact, been convicted not of murder and mayhem but of membership of an illegal organisation - in a trial which observers criticised for its use of evidence obtained under torture. INTERPOL reportedly updated the Red Notice and suddenly the equation had changed.
It is, of course, helpful to know if someone claiming asylum is accused of serious crimes in their home state. But, as a Canadian Federal judge warned in 2010, Red Notices cannot be taken at face value on the assumption that they emanate from a 'reliable, reputable and objective source'. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has indicated (page 28) that information in a Red Notice should be treated as if it came from the country behind the Red Notice - in this case Egypt. Indeed, reacting to the news, Australian minister Brendon O'Connor felt moved to go on record stating that Red Notices were 'often wrong' and need approaching with caution.
The reality, however, is that frontline police currently rely heavily on Red Notices: the information may come from a police office in a distant country, but it is approved by INTERPOL and carries its imprimatur. This is great for tackling serious cross-border crime, but it is also leading to increasing numbers of refugees being arrested on their travels.
This led to another big story, of Mukhtar Alblyazov, a Khazak banker reportedly granted asylum in the UK who was recently arrested in France as a result of a Red Notice - following the alarming arrest and expulsion of his wife and daughter in Italy. INTERPOL is reported to have responded to the story stating that police consulting its systems would not have known he was a refugee, only that he was wanted for crimes.
True enough, INTERPOL may not always know a person has asylum, but a savvy observer should recognise persecution when it sees it, and other, more clear-cut cases Fair Trials International has seen recently show that some countries are currently getting past INTERPOL's controls.
Consider the case of Petr Silaev (pictured above), previously featured on this website: a young activist who took part in a demonstration in Moscow, fled the ensuing police crackdown and was recognised as a refugee in Finland, only to be arrested in Spain after an investigator in Moscow issued an INTERPOL alert to try him for 'hooliganism'. The Spanish court, highly suspicious of the investigator who was after Petr, sensed illegitimate motives and refused to cooperate. INTERPOL could have done so itself, sparing Petr his ordeal. In the video below, Petr discusses the impact of this arrest on his life.
Cases like these have prompted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world's largest regional security organisation, to call on INTERPOL to reform its oversight mechanisms, while members of the European Parliament are beginning to recognise that 'something must be done' to prevent the arrest of those recognised as political refugees in the EU.Indeed, the arrest of a refugee is a serious matter. These are people the international community has chosen to protect, and INTERPOL must do all it can to avoid undermining that protection. As INTERPOL nears its 100th birthday, it is an opportune moment to have the discussion about the way forward.