Home Office orders Croatian mother and sons to leave: The decision to deport a family that fled from Sarajevo conflicts with pledge given by the Government. Adam Sage reports

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The Independent Online
A Croatian woman and her two young sons who fled the war in Sarajevo to join their relatives in Britain have been told by the Government that they cannot stay here and will be deported.

The Home Office has told Mira Litobac that she will be handed over to the French authorities at midday today even though she has a sister and brother-in-law in London and neither friends nor relatives in France. Immigration officials say that Mrs Litobac must claim political asylum in France because she spent three hours there on her way to Dover.

Last night, the Refugee Council appealed to Charles Wardle, the Home Office minister, to stop the deportation, saying the decision conflicted with assurances that the Government would look sympathetically on those escaping the Bosnian war.

Ken Ritchie, deputy director of the council, said: 'I would find it quite incomprehensible that anybody would deport a woman in these circumstances . . . it's a decision which, quite apart from being wrong, appears to be quite out of tune with public sympathy.'

Mrs Litobac fled Sarajevo, where she lived with her two sons aged one and seven, at the start of the war, escaping to another Bosnian town, Kiseljak and then last month to Osijek in Croatia. But it was dangerous for her to remain there because her husband is Serbian and her sons have Serbian names, marking them out as potential targets, Susan Sutovic, her lawyer, said.

Mrs Litobac has lost contact with her husband, who was conscripted into the army in Bosnia.

Her escape from the former Yugoslavia was made possible by Jerry Hartigan, a Northampton-based lawyer, who acted for her sister in Britain. He tried to get her a visa, but was told she would have to attend an interview in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. With two young children, the journey would have been unsafe, Mr Hartigan said. Instead, he drove to Croatia and brought her back to Britain. Last Saturday, six days after arriving at Dover, Mrs Litobac was told the Home Office had invoked the 'third-country rule', under which refugees are expected to claim asylum in the first nation they reach.

Since Mrs Litobac had spent two hours driving through north France and an hour waiting for a ferry at Calais, she had to be returned to the French authorities, the Home Office said.

Officials have sent her a hand- written note saying she will be deported today, along with her two sons. Ms Sutovic is to make a final appeal this morning. Home Office sources suggested last night that the deportation might be delayed to give time for the appeal to be heard.

Refugee groups said the decision to remove Mrs Litobac stood in stark contrast to promises made by ministers last year. In a letter to the Independent last August, Mr Wardle said the Government would operate the third-country rule with 'particular flexibility in the case of ex-Yugoslavian nationals'.

Asylum applications would be considered where refugees had 'made directly for the UK - even if transitting other countries on the way'. The Refugee Council says that this describes Mrs Litbac's case.

(Photograph omitted)

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