Doors shut on fleeing Muslims: Asylum rules have changed so much that refugees from Bosnia rarely qualify, writes Robert Block

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The Independent Online
ONCE again, this time in eastern Bosnia, United Nations aid workers have had to decide whether to let civilians die or to stand themselves accused of being accomplices to 'ethnic cleansing', evacuating Muslims from their homes and thus doing the Serbs' dirty work for them. The dilemma is more acute now, because there is almost nowhere left for the Muslims to go. The international community has changed the rules of asylum to such an extent that Bosnians rarely qualify as refugees.

Nearly 1 million Bosnian Muslims and Croats have fled the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Half are in Croatia, the rest scattered throughout Europe, with the largest group, some 250,000, in Germany, followed by Sweden with about 80,000, Austria with 73,000 and Hungary with 40,000. Croatia now is overwhelmed, Austria is clamping down and on Thursday Germany began rewriting its asylum laws to end its open- door policy.

Most Bosnians in Europe are asylum-seekers with no official status. Only 9,800 Bosnians, former detainees of Serb 'concentration camps', have been resettled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Of those, only the 39 who went to the United States have been granted refugee status.

All this flies in the face of a 1951 international convention that supposedly guarantees the right of asylum to anyone facing persecution in their home countries because of race or religious or political beliefs. Bosnian Muslims certainly seem to fit these descriptions but are not being universally afforded the rights and protection as refugees. 'If displaced Bosnians are not refugees, then who are?' said Peter Gallagher, head of the Refugee Policy Group, a Washington-based think-tank.

The heart of the matter is that the international community rejected all talk of any resettlement for Bosnians and opted instead to treat the problem in the region, with food and medical care. This was done both out of fear of playing into hands of the Serbs and in order to stem the numbers of people fleeing to its doorstep. Although never overtly stated in relation to Bosnia, many countries are keen to avoid a heavy influx of job-seeking refugees draining welfare resources, particularly during a recession.

France and Britain argue that moving people out of the region should be discouraged because it would make the return of the displaced to their homes more difficult when peace returns - an increasingly optimistic position, according to relief experts. Thus, the experts say, the international presence in Bosnia has become an excuse for not letting people out of Bosnia and not properly handling the issue of those people already seeking asylum.

'Governments have not been coming through with offers of mass resettlement and asylum because they do not want to make one side in the conflict look like winners by removing people. They also do not want to give them rights as refugees in their own countries. But the international community did not take the next step of deciding how to protect these people at home. What this means for individuals on the ground under attack is that they are caught in a no-win situation,' said Peter Schatzer of the IOM.

According to Mr Schatzer, the amount of money spent on food and medical supplies and the heavily publicised humanitarian air drops is 'a hundred times' greater than what IOM gets, because resettlement is not a priority. This has led to claims that the international community has adopted policy of 'well-fed dead' in Bosnia.

Mr Gallagher said: 'If the result of international policy is to care for people but do nothing to stop their destruction, then that policy choice is clearly wrong. Would it have been adequate to have got food into Jewish ghettos but have done nothing to stop their transportation to death camps? Of course not. A better policy would have been to have got them out, even though the Germans wanted a Jew-free Europe. It is not just a matter of keeping people alive for a few more days.'

Reluctance to award refugee status to Bosnians has led the UNHCR to urge countries to grant the displaced rights on a temporary basis. 'But even that plea has fallen on largely deaf ears,' said Ron Redmond, UNHCR spokesman in Geneva. 'It is my understanding that the UNHCR even had problems finding countries to take the detainees. Everyone was outraged when the camps were discovered but we had to scream and shout for several weeks before countries came forward and took them.'

In much same way, the Serbian adavance on Muslim villages in eastern Bosnia has prompted indignation, but when it comes to offers of refuge, the only sound across the world is of frontiers slamming shut.

Leading article, page 18