In what charity workers fear will be the start of a mass refusal of asylum applications from Bosnians in the UK, the Home Office has said that Mr Howard considers that the refugees can go back to 'areas within the former Yugoslavia' where they will not suffer persecution. They will be expected to return when the Home Office 'decides it is safe'.
The refusal of the requests for permanent residence began three weeks ago. A Home Office spokeswoman was unable to say how many decisions had been made, but enquiries by the Independent on Sunday have revealed what one lawyer described as a 'bizarre' failure by ministers and officials to recognise the realities of ethnic conflict.
The piecemeal way in which news of the rejection of asylum claims has come out contrasts with the publicity which surrounded the pre-Christmas airlift of injured children from Bosnia yesterday.
Royal Navy Sea King helicopters took five critically ill children from the besieged city of Tuzla. Two have shrapnel and gunshot wounds, one has congenital heart disease and a fourth has water on the brain. They are part of a group of 16 Bosnian children and adults who will be brought to British hospitals tomorrow.
But there is no guarantee that the injured and their families will be allowed to stay in Britain permanently.
Last Monday, Olivera Isakovic-Stanisavyevic, who fled with her baby son to London from Sarajevo when the siege began, was told in a letter from the Home Office that her claim for asylum had been rejected. Mr Howard 'decided that you could return to parts of Bosnia where you could avail yourself of the protection of the authorities', it said.
The London solictors Simons, Muirhead & Burton, who act for several other Bosnian exiles, were told at the same time that a client with a Serb mother and Croat father, who did not want to fight in the war, could not be accepted as a refugee because he had applied too soon.
'You realised in June (1992), on receiving the unfortunate news about the destruction of your family home, that you could not return,' wrote a Mr M Parhizgar from the immigration department, 'and yet you claimed asylum the month before in May. The Secretary of State is of the opinion that you have not personally experienced any real problems arising from being in a war situation.'
A young Muslim woman, who came to Britain as an au pair, was also refused asylum, because, officials said, she had told the immigration department that 'you and your family were non-practising Muslims who lived harmoniously in a mixed community' before the war began.
All the refugees whose cases can be tracked were told that a decision on whether to send them back will be made in a review of their circumstances in 12 months' time. They will not be allowed to bring their families to Britain while they wait.
For Mrs Isakovic-Stanisavyevic, an economist in Sarajevo before the war, the Home Office view that there were parts of former Yugoslavia where she would be protected is terrifying. She is regarded as a Serb because her father was a Serb, although her mother was a Croat. Her husband, Slaven, is regarded as Muslim. His father was a Muslim, his mother a Serb.
'I'm scared,' she said, from her flat in a run-down council block in Hammersmith, west London. 'How can they say we can go back? We don't fit anywhere in Yugoslavia now.'
Her husband was forced to stay in Sarajevo and fight. 'He gets into trouble because he is married to a Serb,' she said. 'He has been told they will keep sending him to the front line, because they do not like the way he says that he is a Yugoslavian, not a Muslim.'
When the war started, Slaven sent his wife and son to Serbia. She came to Britain, where she has a sister-in-law, because the Serb authorities decided that her son, Aljosa, was a Muslim and questioned her about her husband. 'I want my husband to get out of Sarejevo, but even if he does he will not be allowed to join me here,' she said. 'I would like us both to be able to start working and give something back to Britain for helping me.'
Susan Sutovic, her solicitor, said that the Government's behaviour was 'bizarre' and that people in mixed families and men who had escaped from the fighting and were regarded as deserters by their own people could never return.
A spokesman for the Refugee Council, which is helping Bosnians in Britain, said: 'If these people cannot be accepted as genuine refugees by the Home Office, who can be?'