EC agrees to grant shelter to war refugees: Resolution receives muted welcome

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THE European Community yesterday took a cautious step to ensure temporary protection for those fleeing the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. But as they tightened immigration law in other areas, ministers stressed that refugees from the region should return as soon as conditions improved.

The Yugoslav resolution, agreed by justice ministers from the Twelve meeting in Copenhagen, is designed to confirm the situation of the 600,000 Balkan refugees on EC soil. It is aimed principally at those who were interned in prison camps, are injured or sick, are at risk or are victims of rape. It emphasises that in general people should be helped to stay as close as possible to their homes in 'safe zones', such as those the UN is now setting up in Bosnia.

The EC has been fiercely criticised for its stance on admitting refugees, and the resolution comes a year after the crisis began in earnest. At the moment there are more than 4 million displaced people fleeing the conflict, of which Germany alone hosts 250,000, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The remainder are in the former Yugoslavia, including 2.3 million in Bosnia.

Human rights and refugee groups were divided in their welcome. 'It will go a long way towards protecting critical categories, but the key question is how they will implement it,' said Philip Rudge of European Co-ordination on Refugees and Exiles, a non-governmental organisation.

'It is to be welcomed that they have agreed a common policy, but the gist of the text is these people should be returned as soon as possible,' said Johannes van der Klaauw, director of the EC office of Amnesty International.

The resolution's effectiveness is undermined by the fact that nine EC countries - all except Spain, Italy and Denmark - impose visa restrictions on Bosnian refugees.

The concept of 'temporary protection' has arisen because large groups of refugees from the former Yugoslavia have arrived in Europe seeking not refugee status or asylum but simply shelter until they can return. Rather than involve these people in lengthy judicial proceedings, states have allowed them to stay, often on an informal basis. This resolution comes closer to harmonising the situation in different EC countries.

The document emphasises that those under temporary protection must return to 'a region of the former Yugoslavia' where they can live in safety as soon as the situation in the region permits without risk.

Human rights agencies have been pushing for better guarantees that temporary refugees would not be sent back against their will, and that if necessary they could claim full refugee status. 'That's a serious gap,' said Mr Rudge. 'A stage of the process is missing.'

Mr van der Klaauw said that 'there should be a proper study of the human rights situation before refugees are sent back, and there's nothing in the text to say that should happen'.