Fears of racism put up walls all over Europe: Andrew Marshall examines what the EC should be doing about the plight of refugees

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The Independent Online
MEN WITH guns break into their homes and beat them up. They are forced to move on, to find shelter elsewhere. The colour of their skin, their accent or religion is wrong, so they must leave.

For the minorities who have fled Yugoslavia, that is 'ethnic cleansing'. But it is also the grim face of racism in Western Europe for many refugees. Though European governments express their horror at what is going on in Bosnia, their reaction, faced with a massive exodus, has been increasingly to put up the shutters, for fear of stoking the fires of racism at home.

Those who represent Europe's refugees and immigrants fear that this is not just a panic measure: it is the wave of the future. 'Racism is a scourge, whether it is in Yugoslavia or Western Europe,' said Tara Mukherjee, President of the Migrants' Forum of the European Community.

With other non-governmental organisations, he is campaigning for Europe to keep its borders open and its racists under control. The Yugoslav crisis is the first test of how Western Europe will face this challenge, and it is not encouraging.

Most of the burden has been borne by countries that are too weak to sustain it, and in the last three weeks they have started to revolt. Croatia has started to move refugees on, sending Bosnians to Italy and Hungary. Slovenia has said it cannot cope, and Serbia is labouring under the weight of its refugee population. But Hungary is also creaking and yesterday it turned away hundreds of refugees, including 200 Bosnians who had arrived from Croatia.

Hungary blames Austria, which on 2 July introduced visa regulations for holders of Serbian or Montenegrin passports. But Vienna says it cannot cope. 'We could find room maybe for one more trainload, but what about the second, the third, and the 10th train?' the Interior Minister, Franz Loeschnak, said.

Austria blames other West European states. Germany imposed visa restrictions on Bosnians in April and Switzerland did the same. Last week Sweden sent back 25 Yugoslavs, and two weeks before began turning back Bosnian refugees.

Partly, the problem is lack of co-ordination. 'Policy changes from day to day,' said Eva Kjaergaard, legal officer of European Consultation on Refugees and Exiles. But the situation is going to get worse. People are fleeing turmoil in other East European countries. Europe is faced with a secular movement from the Middle East and North Africa, from its former colonies, and from Eastern Europe, in search of prosperity and safety.

There have been attempts at co-ordination through the EC. Asylum is one of the main objects of the EC's effort to harmonise what happens on its borders. Ministers and civil servants meet, in secret, to produce guidelines. Refugee groups are concerned that because they have little influence in the meetings, the rights and interests of refugees will not be given as much weight as those of states.

Mr Mukherjee met Portuguese officials of the Ad Hoc Group on immigration when Lisbon held the EC presidency, the first NGO to be allowed to do so, but is uncertain whether Britain, which now holds the presidency, will accord him the same rights.

Why is there so much secrecy, and why such caution over immigration? The fear is that if immigration is allowed to increase, the fires of racism will be fed.

But the EC has done little to confront racism. Mr Mukherjee would like to see a Commissioner for Racial Affairs in Brussels. There are about 15 million people in the EC who are black or from Third World countries. Surely they should have some representation and protection, he asks.

Racist attacks are intensifying. Early on Thursday morning, for instance, skinheads with shotguns and baseball bats smashed their way into the apartment of a Vietnamese man in Germany and beat him up. Three foreigners have been killed, and dozens injured, in attacks in Germany this year. Many simply move on, as the thugs intend.

European leaders say they want to stamp out ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and threaten military force. Perhaps they might look into their own backyards and start to tackle the problem at home, by opening their borders and protecting those already there.