Despite the television images, not all fleeing Kosovars are poor peasants. Some may want to come and live with us - but that is where our sympathy wanes

nlikely as it may now seem, middle-class Albanians demonstrated in Pristina last summer against the treatment of their rural brethren in Kosovo by the Serbian security forces. In preceding weeks, Western television viewers had come to associate Kosovo with death and destruction in the countryside. What they remembered was bodies littering the smoking ruins of farm compounds and peasant women in headscarves mourning their menfolk. So, where did these trendy young people waving placards come from? Looking as they did like their counterparts in Milan or Paris, they confused our picture of Albanians.

No doubt that is why, as hundreds of thousands of Albanians are driven over the borders of the province by an all-out campaign of ethnic cleansing, the television cameras seek to reinforce stereotypes. Anyone hoping to learn the fate of the educated, English-speaking people they had met in Pristina had no hope of seeing them in the news footage. That dwells on the images we have learned to expect: the dirty-faced (but still blond and blue-eyed) weeping child; the weatherbeaten patriarch. The Serbs, of course, helped by holding back the young men. If there had been too many of those, our sympathies might have been diluted by the reflection that they could be Kosovo Liberation Army fighters in mufti.

Even those present seem somewhat surprised to learn that not all Kosovar Albanians are tillers of the soil - Newsweek marvelled that many of them had mobile phones. Less sympathetic onlookers have seized upon such signs of prosperity as proof that some of the refugees are faking it. Pointing to a woman in the Stankovec camp who was wearing lipstick and jewellery, a Macedonian intepreter told one British journalist: "These people say they've been living in the mountains. How can someone who is a refugee look so smart? You can't believe these people - the Albanians tell lies."

The interpreter clearly believed that no one who appeared middle-class could be a refugee, an assumption not shared by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the word quite simply as: "One who, owing to religious persecution or political troubles, seeks refuge in a foreign country." Even some of the victims themselves seem to reject the description, such as the involuntarily exiled journalist who told me: "We are not refugees, we are deportees."

Confused? The BBC journalist who spoke of the latest Serbian brutalities "sending hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo" certainly was. She made it sound as though all these people were already refugees, even before they left their homeland. (In the jargon of the relief world, if they had been forced out of their homes but were still within the borders of the country, they were IDPs - internally displaced persons.)

There are many reasons why we shun the complexity of this issue. People who look helpless and confused make more dramatic television, and are more likely to attract donations, as the generous response of the British public has demonstrated. But they also offer the reassurance that they are not "just like us", and are therefore less likely to want to come and live with us.

Too many glimpses of the more prosperous type of refugee would be an uncomfortable reminder of the number of Kosovar Albanians who have come here as illegal economic migrants - such prosperity as there was in Kosovo before this latest horror was almost entirely due to remittances from the hundreds of thousands of Albanians working abroad, mostly without papers. When I told a young woman in Pristina earlier this year that she must visit us if she came to Britain, she replied: "Oh no, it's far too expensive. I would have to pay an agent at least 3,000 Deutschmarks to smuggle me in." She had a Yugoslav passport, but the idea of applying for a visa had not occurred to her.

We are intervening in the Balkans, we are told, because of the proximity of this crisis as opposed to those in, say, Rwanda or Indonesia. These are fellow Europeans, after all, but that does not mean we want them to have the freedom to go anywhere in Europe they choose. The Government knows that public support for the war depends on two things not happening - our servicemen not being killed, and large numbers of displaced people not arriving on these shores - and, after accepting that thousands of Kosovar Albanians might have to be harboured here, hastily decided that it would be better for them to remain close to their homeland.

With another torrent of people from Kosovo beginning to arrive in Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia, this convenient assumption of what is best for them may have to change. But we are trying to fight a war at arm's length, using air power alone, because we are reluctant to accept the consequences, and that applies to the victims of the war as well. Our definition of a refugee, whatever the dictionary may say, is someone who remains at a safe distance.