West drags its feet while innocents suffer: A meeting in Geneva today should start to atone for the rich nations' shameful lack of help to those fleeing the former Yugoslavia, says Andrew Marshall

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WESTERN politicians are fond of talking about the 'international community' that came into being after the end of the Cold War, and the duties that follow from membership. It is a phrase that has often been deployed against those in the former Yugoslav republics who are alleged to have breached international law in their treatment of ethnic minorities.

But when ministers from 40 countries meet in Geneva today and tomorrow to discuss the refugee crisis that has followed the fighting, some may have trouble looking others in the eye when they use the phrase. The western response so far has been fragmented, ineffective and dominated by raison d'etat rather than consideration of international responsibilities.

'Ethnic cleansing' is the euphemism for the practice of kicking out minority populations, which has been indulged in by all sides in the conflict in Bosnia- Herzegovina. It is the main reason why 2.2 million people are homeless, 1.8 million in the former Yugoslav republics, the rest in European countries. There are hundreds of thousands of displaced people to whom the humanitarian agencies have not been able to distribute aid. 'Ethnic cleansing' is still going on, and all attempts to produce a lasting ceasefire have failed.

The ministers are likely to issue a strongly worded denunciation of these practices, and may raise the threat of punishing those found to have breached international law. They will also demand access to civilians bottled up in besieged towns such as Gorazde.

But if 'ethnic cleansing' is the cause of the refugee crisis, the ministers will probably have scant success in dealing with its effects. They have been loath to open their borders, and slow in coming up with funds to assist in the crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is hosting today's conference, has started to despair, which is why the conference has been called.

European Consultation on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European co-ordination group, points out that in 1981 Western countries on UNHCR's executive committee agreed that 'in the case of large-scale influx, persons seeking asylum should always receive at least temporary refuge'.

They also agreed that 'states which, because of their geographical situation or otherwise, are faced with large-scale influx, should as necessary and at the request of the states concerned receive immediate assistance from other states in accordance with the principle of equitable burden-sharing'.

This is what is known as 'soft law'; it is not binding. The reaction of states in western Europe has been disjointed, some states have put up visa restrictions, and the amount of financial aid has been insufficient.

The problem falls into three areas. First, there is the short-term problem of assisting the present wave of displaced people. So far, the response to calls for funds from UNHCR has been desultory: just over dollars 100m (pounds 53m) of the dollars 140m which it requested. Bilateral aid for the countries hosting the refugee populations has also been inadequate. Now, far more is needed.

Second, there is the medium-term problem of caring for refugees. The winter could be harsh; most are living in poor conditions in camps in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, and refugee officials have expressed their fears that perhaps as many as another million could move.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's idea of creating quotas of refugees for each EC state has been poorly received outside Germany. Many countries are afraid the legal status of short-stay refugees would be uncertain, and that they might become permanent immigrants.

Yet it is evident that the refugees fleeing Yugoslavia are 'genuine'; that is to say, they are not economic migrants. They have a well-founded fear of persecution, and they have nowhere else to go. Some states say that they will not take refugees because this encourages 'ethnic cleansing', and the people forced to flee are caught in the middle.

A plan to set up safe havens for refugees, leaked by French defence officials on Monday, draws on the experience of northern Iraq, where the threat of military force was used to create sanctuaries for Kurdish refugees. But in Yugoslavia the military difficulties of doing this would be far greater. There is no ceasefire; the forces being confronted are not, in the main, disciplined armies but guerrilla groups; and there is no single area to be protected.

Third, there is the problem of resettling refugees and reconstructing the areas from which they have fled. Given the lack of a political solution, any answer to these problems is still distant. Some officials fear that many of the people displaced by the crisis may never go home. In any case, there is little for them to return to: many villages and towns have been destroyed, and Bosnia is being carved up by the combatants.

The best that refugee officials are hoping for is that a steering committee can be created out of the two-day meeting, to assess the costs and sketch out roles for the different agencies. It may be able to get to grips with some of the problems of co-ordination.

The longer-term problems will probably be swept under the carpet. The costs of the Yugoslav war are likely to run into the billions, considering the destruction that has already happened. Yet the ripples are still spreading, and there are fears that the conflict could spread further, into Kosovo, into Macedonia, and perhaps across the border into Bulgaria, Greece and Albania.

The human cost of the refugee tragedy is incalculable. Most of those fleeing the fighting are women, children and old people, frightened to go home but afraid to move too far from their families. So far, the 'international community' has demonstrated pitifully little solidarity in the face of their suffering. Today it has the chance to redeem itself; but the omens are not good.

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