Leading Article: Taking our share of refugees will help steady the Balkans

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THE YUGOSLAVIAN wars of the past decade have produced few moral conundrums more difficult than the issue of taking in refugees from Kosovo. The Government has announced that Britain is now willing to take in 10,000 Kosovar refugees on top of the 9,000 already in this country. Given the experience from previous conflicts, for instance Bosnia, there is every likelihood that few of the refugees reaching our shores will ever return to the valleys and mountains of Kosovo. However that does not mean that Britain is colluding - albeit unwillingly and unwittingly - in the efforts of Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia, to change the ethnic make-up of Kosovo through a combination of threats, arson and murder.

Foreign policy is not best dictated by the gut. The sight of starving children, exhausted mothers and bearded men with their faces full of tears encourages the desire to bring the Kosovar Albanians away from the dangerously overcrowded borders of their homeland as soon as possible. The long-term effects of this will be to disperse the population of Kosovo not only across Europe but across the whole world.

The difficulty of the Government's decision to accept thousands of refugees is exacerbated by the lack of support for this move even within the Western Allies. Emma Bonino, the European Union's aid commissioner, has said that "we should not participate in ethnic cleansing". She has highlighted the difficulties of the rescue operation by asking: "How do you choose 10,000 refugees? How do you airlift 50,000 people?" The charities and aid agencies have echoed this call. Oxfam argues that refugees should only be taken away from the region if there is no other way to take care of them.

The doubts about the sense of this airlift exist within the Cabinet itself. This is hardly surprising when Tony Blair said in a newspaper article on Sunday that to disperse refugees across Europe would be a "policy of despair". Clare Short, the minister for international development, who has been visiting the aid effort, was perhaps only echoing the old Cabinet line when she said that moving people out of the region would be doing exactly what Milosevic wanted.

Despite the appearance that the airlift is motivated by the short-term emotional impact of descriptions and images of the refugees, there is long-term sense in removing at least some of the refugees from the edge of the conflict. The countries surrounding Kosovo have coped with unbelievable demands over the passed week. Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslavian province of Montenegro are all poor. Albania is emerging from a civil war. They are all unlikely to be able to cope with the tide of people crossing their borders for long. Furthermore, they have ethnic minority problems of their own. The Macedonians have held the Kosovar refugees in camps in part as a response to the recognition that, if the ethnic Albanians were to stay, they would dangerously change the balance between the country's indigenous Slav majority and its Albanian-speaking minorities. The Macedonian government has therefore stated that refugees can only be registered and helped for a limited time; they will have to be accommodated elsewhere.

For some of the refugees, at least, that elsewhere must be away from the borders of Kosovo. They will have special medical and, perhaps, psychological problems with which the tent hospitals within the refugee camps will be unable to cope.

Britain is right to be taking in refugees not as an alternative to helping them on Kosovo's borders but as a way of supplementing the efforts that are going on surrounding the province. The destabilisation of Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro would benefit only Mr Milosevic.