War victims trapped by red tape: UK's quota for 'refugees' unfilled as rescued Irma remains critical

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BRITAIN'S quota for accepting war victims from former Yugoslavia has been barely dented because of procedural differences with United Nations agencies, it emerged last night.

Meanwhile, five-year-old Irma Hadzimuratovic, flown out of Sarajevo in an RAF Hercules on Monday, was in a critical condition with meningitis in the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street.

British diplomats acknowledged that out of a quota of 4,000 set last October, fewer than 700 had arrived. They were responding to a growing dispute prompted by the Irma case about whether Western governments or the UN were more to blame for failing the victims.

After John Major's intervention to rescue the Muslim girl from the besieged Bosnian city where she was injured by a Serbian mortar, the Government was preparing to make an exception to its usual procedure by volunteering beds for some of the 41 people the UN High Commissioner for Refugeees says have been waiting to be moved out for two months. Offers of beds have come from hospitals across Britain. 'We are exploring other ways of extending the number of other people we can treat,' said a Downing Street spokeswoman. Ireland also offered yesterday to take five children.

British sources told the Independent the reason for the unfilled quota was that normal UK policy is 'not to tout for business', but to wait for the UN to present those individual cases in most urgent need.

'The UNHCR is best placed to decide priorities,' a Foreign Office spokesman said. Few such requests have been made recently, British diplomats say. The latest was three weeks ago.

When the Home Office last October imposed a visa requirement on people fleeing the former Yugoslavia, the Foreign Office established that a quota of 1,000 victims plus relatives should be accepted to stay indefinitely on humanitarian grounds - making a total of some 4,000.

To date, 676 of those have arrived: 269 former detainees, including many in need of medical treatment; four special cases in need of urgent medical treatment - including Irma; and 423 relatives.

A decision to meet a UNHCR request can be made within 48 hours, the Foreign Office says. But it requires the following:

The Department of Health must agree to pay for, and make available, the hospital bed;

The Department of Social Services must agree to pay the social security and benefits of accompanying relatives and of the patient during convalescence;

The Home Office must agree to give them visas on a de facto refugee, or indefinite, basis;

The Foreign Office must make the executive decision to take them.

A diplomat described the procedure: 'The Foreign Office UN department receives the UNHCR documents and passes them to the Overseas Development Administration. We circulate the documents to the spending departments. If they say yes, we pass the decision to the UNHCR in Geneva, who pass it on to their people in Zagreb.' A non- governmental body is paid by the ODA to fly out the individuals.

On Monday, all that was taken care of by telephone in one morning.

British diplomats admit they were puzzled that after an initial rush of applications via the UNHCR, the number levelled off. A UNHCR spokesman said: 'We would hope that any government would come forward when they know we have a number of urgent cases and say 'we have this or that facility or this or that children's hospital'. We held a meeting with some 40 donor governments last month, when we made clear we had a problem with our medical evacuation programme.'

A Foreign Office spokesman said: 'We did not take that general announcement as a request for help in individual cases - in which case we would have expected them to make such representations - but as something to bear in mind next time they make an individual request.'

Number 10's switchboard was besieged with calls on Sunday night from people who had seen Irma on television. Yesterday she underwent three hours of surgery to remove shrapnel from her back and insert a tube into her head to drain cerebro- spinal fluid. Her neurologist, William Harkness, said: 'The injury which she has sustained to her back was followed by complications to the head as a result of her developing meningitis.

'We have, therefore, performed a small operation to temporarily drain fluid from the head. There was no evidence of any direct injury to the head or brain and certainly no shrapnel injury to the brain.'

The infected back shrapnel wound was cleaned, but there was evidence of damage to the nerves.

A private west London hospital which has offered 10 beds to Bosnian children who have had legs or arms amputated is being frustrated by UNHCR rules which do not allow priority to 'rehabiliation cases', writes Celia Hall. Vivian Grisogono, chief physiotherapist at the Royal Masonic Hospital, said the problem was getting children flown out. 'We do have this disagreement with them over priorities. They say the child's life must be threatened. We argue that a child who has lost a leg and who cannot run to safety is life threatened.'

Miss Grisogono, a Croat, is the driving force behind the hospital's War Victims Fund. It is offering to fit new limbs, which cost from pounds 500 to pounds 2,000 or more each, and to provide training and rehabilitation.

Further reports, page 6

Leading article; letters, page 17

Many more Irmas, page 18

(Photograph omitted)