Flight from atrocities to an uncertain future: Heather Mills reports on refugees from what was Yugoslavia who are being deported from Britain

THE QUEUE spills out of the waiting room and down the stairs of a solicitor's office in west London. Fifteen would-be refugees of all ages from the former Yugoslavia wait patiently for advice from one of the few Serbo-Croat speaking solicitors in Britain.

Four face imminent deportation. Their cases, say Susan Sutovic and other lawyers specialising in asylum cases, give the lie to government claims that the Home Office is adopting a liberal approach to those seeking sanctuary here.

She cites the case of Miroslav, 28, from Dubrovnic, an unwilling conscript into the Serbian army who, after four months of witnessing brutality and atrocities in and around Sarajevo, fled the country. He arrived on a ferry from Belgium in June, hoping to enter as a refugee. He was held at a detention centre at Dover for four days while Ms Sutovic applied to the High Court for judicial review to stop his deportation back to Belgium. But on the fifth day, Miroslav - who did not want his real name given - was transferred to a prison in Cambridge. 'He could not stand it. The prison was driving him crazy. He phoned me begging me to get him out. I did and he was sent straight back to Belgium.' Ms Sutovic says he slipped over the border into Germany and is now living in hiding, fearful of making another failed asylum attempt.

'After what he had been through - witnessing appalling atrocities carried out on all sides - to lock him up in a jail like a criminal was disgusting.'

She is raising his case with the Refugee Council, which is considering a protest to the Home Secretary. Ken Ritchie, the council's deputy director, said: 'If what is claimed in his case is correct, it is a scandal.'

Ms Sutovic said she believed that the treatment of those who were granted temporary admission or asylum in Britain was probably 'better and fairer' than anywhere else in Europe. 'The difficulty is being accepted.'

Last week, in answer to criticism from Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, John Major reiterated government claims that former Yugoslavians were free to enter as visitors without restriction. But sitting in the waiting room yesterday were two young women from Belgrade - one seeking to work as an au pair, the other coming as a tourist - who were fighting to enter.

Since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had asked Britain for greater help last month, the only improvement Ms Sutovic said she had seen was a delay on the part of the Home Office in reaching a final decision over whether or not it was prepared to entertain an asylum claim. Miroslav's case in June was decided in two hours, she said. Now it was taking days, if not weeks.

The main issue concerning lawyers and refugee groups yesterday was what is known as the Dublin Convention, an agreement among European Community countries which means that refugees can only seek asylum in the country to which they first flee. Because there are no direct flights from the war-torn areas, no one can fly directly to Britain and claim asylum. By applying the Dublin Convention, Britain is therefore cushioned from the numbers of the refugees flooding into the adjacent countries.

It is for that reason that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has formally requested the Government to halt the policy of returning nationals from the former Yugoslavia to the last country they passed through, in a spirit of international burden-sharing. In effect, the countries of the European Community should, for the purposes of the crisis, treat themselves as a general border.

The Government has made it clear that it is not prepared to abandon the third-country principle for fear that other groups may start making special claims, but it had hinted that it may look at the issue more sympathetically. But yesterday, watched anxiously by Boris Zugic, a 28-year-old Serb from Sarajevo, and his Muslim girlfriend, Belma Abdicevic, 29, Ms Sutovic managed only to obtain temporary leave for the couple to remain in England until Friday. They had flown into Gatwick from Italy two days ago and had been due to report to officials at Gatwick yesterday afternoon.

Before she hangs up the telephone, Ms Sutovic asks the official if the policy of rigidly applying third-country removal still remains. She is told that it does. She tells the couple there is little chance that she will be able to stop their deportation to Italy.

They are despondent. Mr Zugic said they have been told emphatically they will not qualify for asylum in Italy. They allege Italy has returned some asylum seekers to Slovenia and for that reason they stayed in Italy as visitors until their finances and the hospitality of friends ran out. They had been hoping to stay with friends in London. 'We have no money, no home, nothing. We feel that no one wants to be bothered with us,' he said.

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