Tim Yeo, Under-Secretary of State for Health, confirmed yesterday that he has asked local authorities to speed up adoption procedures to enable babies born to Muslim women raped by Serbian soldiers to be adopted by British families without bureaucratic delays.
Britain, he said, should be 'in the forefront' of the care of abandoned children in former Yugoslavia.
Campaigners for inter-country adoption welcomed the move, contrasting it with ministers' 'failure to encourage' couples to adopt Romanian orphans after the overthrow of the Communist regime three years ago.
Mr Yeo denied that the Government had made mistakes during the Romania crisis. But, he said, ministers had 'learnt the lessons of that experience, which showed that many suitable British couples wanted to adopt foreign children'.
The 'peculiar distress' of the children of women raped in Bosnia provided an opportunity to signal publicly the Government's approval of adoption, discouraging 'free enterprise' couples travelling abroad to seek children.
'I don't know what the numbers are but we are talking about babies who have not been born yet. This early warning gives us a unique opportunity to respond. If they are rejected by their mothers and their local communities we want to be able to help. I do not want these babies to languish in poor conditions in institutions in or near Bosnia while some red tape is untangled at this end.'
However, Stephen Campbell, under- secretary for social services at the Association of County Councils, said that the government target of vetting prospective adoptive parents in one month would mean that in some areas couples wanting to adopt British children would have to wait longer for their cases to be processed.
'Of course councils can accelerate the process for one group. But if we have to transfer social workers from other tasks to do so, the whole range of social work - from child protection to care for the mentally ill - will be affected. In the short term this could be justified as a necessary call on resources, but in the long term I don't think people will accept it. We will closely monitor the process to see if there is a need for extra resources.'
Mr Yeo has written to Douglas Hogg, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, urging him to ask appropriate authorities and welfare organisations caring for the women in Bosnia and Serbia whether unwanted children could come to the UK for adoption.
Some of the women raped by Serbian forces have already given birth, and many of them have been abandoning their babies, a German emergency aid group has reported.
In an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper, Rupert Neudeck, spokesman for the Cap Anamur organisation, which has rented premises to look after the women, said that maternity homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Croatian cities of Zagreb and Split were overwhelmed with patients, partly as a result of the spate of births.
Bosnian officials say that tens of thousand of women may have been raped, some in 'rape camps' allegedly set up by Serbian forces.
Mr Yeo has also written to Dr Ali al- Ghamdi, director of the Islamic Cultural Centre, to seek advice. He said he did not envisage British Christian couples being reluctant to adopt Muslim infants 'because they are so young'.
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