A lesson in humanity from a bunch of school children

Fergal Keane 'The Kosovars were given a year in Britain and must now return home or face deportation'

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Up beyond the concrete towers of the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds is a place of refuge. It is situated in an area of economic deprivation and what sociologists would call "social alienation". It is a place where you might imagine people would be more concerned about protecting their own interests than caring about a group of refugees from a faraway country. But in the classrooms of the Primrose High School, children from Kosovo have received a welcome beyond their wildest dreams. They came more than a year ago at the height of the bombing. One of them was a 12-year-old girl who had seen her father and brother shot dead. She had been shot in the hand and leg by the Serbs. Most of the children had suffered some form of war trauma.

Up beyond the concrete towers of the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds is a place of refuge. It is situated in an area of economic deprivation and what sociologists would call "social alienation". It is a place where you might imagine people would be more concerned about protecting their own interests than caring about a group of refugees from a faraway country. But in the classrooms of the Primrose High School, children from Kosovo have received a welcome beyond their wildest dreams. They came more than a year ago at the height of the bombing. One of them was a 12-year-old girl who had seen her father and brother shot dead. She had been shot in the hand and leg by the Serbs. Most of the children had suffered some form of war trauma.

Their teacher, Rachel Legge, has nothing but praise for the Kosovar children. "It is the first time in my life that I have seen children ask for more homework, children who wanted to come in and do schoolwork during their holidays. They have such a thirst for knowledge." Given that many of the children have had their schooling disrupted by war for more than four years, the hungering for knowledge is not surprising. But for the past few weeks the school has been the scene of sad farewells.

The Kosovars were given a year in Britain by the Government and must now return home or face deportation. The other pupils at Primrose High got up a petition and sent it to Jack Straw. They wanted the Kosovars to be allowed to stay until the situation in their home country had stabilised. As Rachel Legge told me: "These children all love their country and they want to go home. But they want to go home when it is safe to go, when there is an infrastructure to support them. When they were leaving, they were hugging you as if they never wanted to let you go."

There are 19 children left out of 30 who originally came to the school. The deadline for the repatriation of the 2,349 Kosovars who remain in Britain is Sunday next. Jack Straw has been quoted as saying: "Enforcement action will be taken in due course against those who are unwilling to go back voluntarily." Translated from official speak, "enforcement action" means policemen and immigration officials turning up on people's doorsteps and forcing them to the airport and onto planes.

My, how things can change in a year. Who can forget the images of British welcome fed to a wider world when the Kosovars were first driven from their homes? The images tended to obscure the fact that our government was deeply reluctant to allow large numbers of refugees into Britain - the stated reason being that settlement would undermine the aim of getting the Kosovars back to their homes as soon as possible. The morality of that position was contingent on the new Kosovo being a place the refugees would feel safe returning to. The past year has shown it to be anything but.

A few weeks ago I had a call from a young woman who did some translation work for me in the Balkans during the Kosovo crisis. She wondered if I would mind giving her a reference for a study programme here in the UK. At the time of the war she had seemed enthusiastic about returning home "once the Serbs have been pushed out". By "Serbs" she did not mean the Serbs of Kosovo but the army and paramilitary police of Slobodan Milosevic.

My translator had imagined a free and open Kosovo emerging from the ashes of war. More than a year later she sounded disillusioned, if not downright despairing. "I don't want to go back to the place that it has become," she said. It was a short conversation, more striking for the tone of her voice than for the words used. She sounded defeated and had decided to make a future in a European country with whose ways and mores she could identify. The post-war Kosovo with its rampant intolerance, criminal gangs and beleaguered UN administration was the antithesis of all she believed in.

Just consider the UN's own briefing paper for the past month in Kosovo. On 22 June, Serbs attacked UN police vehicles in Mitrovica and troops fired warning shots. Nine UN policemen were injured and 10 police cars damaged. The Serbs attempted to march on the Albanian enclave in the north of the town. On 21 June, two Serbs - a man and a woman - were shot and seriously wounded as they walked in the streets of Pristina. "Stop the violence," appealed Bernard Kouchner, head of the UN mission. "Let us work towards a Kosovo based on justice, tolerance, freedom and democracy." Poor Mr Kouchner. Just five days before, he was having to condemn the murder of two Serbs and the wounding of another in a mine attack.

Understandably, the UN would prefer the media to concentrate on the positive: the 841,000 refugees who have now returned to Kosovo, the slow progress in setting up a police school and recruitment of minorities to the police. But is this a country to which we can in good conscience return the children of Primrose High and expect that they will not be exposed to trauma?

There is a clear issue of moral responsibility. We fought a war in Kosovo in the cause of tolerance (at least that is what I understood the fundamental principle to be). The war itself often descended into catastrophe; it succeeded in driving Milosevic out but exposed Nato to justified claims of human rights abuse in its bombing campaign. The mess of today was created by Milosevic but made worse by international incompetence and indifference in the wake of the war. We should regard ourselves as honour bound to protect refugees from this conflict.

But there is another reason for thinking again about deportations, and it applies also to the Chinese who survived the horror of Dover and to their relatives in hiding in Britain. It is the old fashioned notion that the true strength of a society can be measured by its willingness to extend compassion towards the vulnerable and the weak.

Though the circumstances that led them to these shores are vastly different, the Kosovars and the Chinese are all deserving of our compassion. More conservative commentators argue that the only honest refugee policy is one which says explicitly "we cannot cater for all the wretched of the earth and allowing in a few only encourages all the rest." Send them home and you discourage the millions waiting. The truth is you don't discourage anybody.

If the circumstances are bad enough people will keep trying to get out or will want to stay in Britain. And in most of Kosovo and many parts of China things are that bad. The argument for exclusion is rather similar to that put forward by the enemies of interventionism. Because we can't intervene everywhere, we shouldn't get involved anywhere. This is a doctrine of block-headed absolutism. We should do what we can, where we can. We extend practical compassion where it is possible. And in the case of the children of Primrose High and their families (and with the survivors of Dover) it is well within our means to extend compassion.

There is no magic line to define the limits of generosity, but when the pupils of Primrose High in Lincoln Green drew up their petition on behalf of their Kosovar classmates they gave an example to the rest of the country. It is one the politicians should follow.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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