Leading Article: We must care for Kosovo's poor and dispossessed

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THE FATE of the Kosovar refugees has taken a new and sinister twist, as journalists and aid workers in Albania and Macedonia report that the Serbian army has forced fleeing people back into Kosovo. At the same time, the Macedonian government's decision to harry refugees out of the transit camp at Blace was brutal if, in some respects, understandable. The refugees have suddenly become not just the victims of war but a weapon in the propaganda battle - a weapon which Europe has still not learnt to protect itself from, as was made evident at the crisis meeting in Luxembourg yesterday.

The latest change of tactic by Slobodan Milosevic, President of Yugoslavia, may be an attempt to capitalise on the cease-fire he declared on Tuesday, using the pretext of Eastern Orthodox Holy Week. The Yugoslav President could have decided that, with the Russian media turning against him over the humanitarian crisis and Nato air attacks on Serbian ground troops intensifying, keeping ethnic Albanians in Kosovo made sense. He could use them as evidence of the sincerity of his peaceful intentions and also have human shields against Nato bombs.

Whatever Mr Milosevic's calculations, his actions should not fool anyone in the European Union into thinking that the Kosovars in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro are going to be able to go home any time soon.

It is extremely disappointing therefore that the European nations have not been able to come up with an agreed policy on sheltering refugees. The dithering over whether or not to take them in which has characterised the better part of the week has only continued. While the Germans, Dutch and Danes proposed that EU states welcome refugees in proportion to their population, Britain and Italy said no - and France is trying not to take any Kosovar refugees at all.

The removal of the Kosovar population from the area around their homeland makes it more likely that they will never go home. But taking some of the refugees out of the neighbouring states is necessary. The Macedonians have not been as sympathetic to the refugees as they could have been, but given their country's poverty and already sizeable ethnic-Albanian minority the Macedonians' action has some of the force of self-preservation. The Kosovar refugees are indeed a European problem; but first they are a problem to neighbouring Balkan states. Some refugees must be taken out of the border lands, as humanitarian concerns must come before political considerations.

There should be efforts to gather as much information as possible about the refugees so that families can be quickly reunited and the chance of people one day returning to their homes is increased. The Serbian attempt to strip the Kosovars of their identity must be countered with all the resources of modern information technology.

The refugees are not being allowed to chose their destination. Who would not choose to be resettled in a rich welfare state like Sweden rather than rough it in Turkey? Nothing can be done to end this unfairness, other than to make sure the situation does not last long. Once the refugees have arrived in their host countries they should be housed like other asylum seekers. They should not be herded into camps where inadequate facilities will breed discontent and violence.

The best and quickest way for the EU to get the Kosovars home is for Nato to establish a protectorate over Kosovo. This will take a large commitment of infantry and tanks to establish and defend its borders. Soldiers will die. The EU governments have a stark choice. Either they can have a long war with no Nato ground troops involved and the prospect of the refugees becoming permanently settled in their countries, or they can fight to create a protectorate which will secure future peace.