Britain sows confusion over refugees

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The Independent Online
Britain, which has argued strongly against the dispersal of refugees across Europe, yesterday received welcome support from Croatia's ambassador to Germany, Ivan Illic, who argued: 'It is much better, for political and humanitarian reasons, for these people to stay in Croatia.'

But Britain has also sown confusion regarding the number of Yugoslavs already allowed into the UK. The Home Office this week sought to deflect criticism by emphasising that visitors from Yugoslavia have continued to arrive - around 4,000 a month in the early months of this year, mostly coming to stay with families - and sought to present these statistics as a new act of generosity.

In reality, the number of such visitors is down on previous years, despite the hugely increased number of people seeking to leave the former Yugoslavia indefinitely, because of the war. An average of around 6,000 Yugoslav citizens a month visited Britain in 1990, the last full year for which figures were available yesterday.

A Home Office spokesman yesterday admitted that the number of Yugoslav arrivals was 'a little bit lower' than before the war began, but claimed - without producing any evidence - that this was because of 'difficulties with transport', not because people are being turned back by British officials.

Yugoslavs visiting the UK in recent months have described facing much tougher checks at Heathrow and other immigration points than was previously the case, in order to ensure that they have sufficient funds and will not overstay their welcome; Britain insists that there has been no change in the rules.

Britain's sudden brandishing of tourist statistics is - consciously, or otherwise - essentially a red herring. Other West European countries have always had tens of thousands of temporary Yugoslav visitors every year. The openness to refugees, who have been driven out of their homes, is a separate question. By quoting one set of marginally relevant statistics, Britain presumably hopes that it will distract attention from the larger issue of what to do about would- be refugees who do not have family or friends to stay with.

Some of the fiercest fighting for several weeks erupted in Sarajevo yesterday, just two days after the conclusion of the latest round of peace talks in London. In the Bosnian capital alone, at least eight people were killed, though some reports suggested the number of dead would prove much higher.

The airport was temporarily closed, after a mortar round hit one of the runways. Five Ukrainian United Nations soldiers were wounded - two of them seriously. The streets of central Sarajevo were deserted: mortar shells fell near the presidency building, the parliament and shops in the city centre.

The Bosnian vice-President, Ejup Ganic, said he feared that his country could be conquered by Serbia and wiped off the map before talks reopen in London next month. 'Bosnia-Herzegovina could disappear within a month if the aggression continues and we don't get support,' he said in Bonn. 'Either the United Nations should pass a resolution to send in intervention troops or they should allow us to get weapons.'

Radovan Karadzic, self-proclaimed leader of the Bosnian Serbs, said that Bosnia should be split between the Serbs and the Croats: 'There is increasing support in Europe for the idea that Bosnia should be divided into two parts. It would be much better for the Muslims to start negotiations immediately.'

(Photograph omitted)