Leading Article: A genius for hypocrisy

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THE British have long been said to have a talent for hypocrisy. The Government seems bent on proving that it approaches genius. Ten days ago it was accused of meanness in accepting a niggardly 1,300 asylum-seekers from the former Yugoslavia, when the Germans had taken in more than 200,000, the Austrians and Hungarians 50,000 each, the Swedes 44,000, and so on. It defended itself by arguing that it was better to help refugees as near as possible to the homes to which most of them hoped to return. In that belief, said Baroness Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development, it was supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

None the less, the Government seemed to suspect that not everybody would be impressed by the altruism of that argument. So the next day the Home Office revealed that some 4,000 people per month had been arriving from the former Yugoslavia since January. In what was evidently considered a major act of generosity, none had been forced to leave if they could not safely return to their homes. This was an exercise in obfuscation: those concerned were merely visiting relatives in Britain. In 1990, the monthly average was 6,000.

Ministers emphasised that 'nobody will be returned to the war zones', as Lady Chalker put it in another impressive display of magnanimity. At the same time, however, Britain was (as we report on page one today) busy sending 36 refugees from the former Yugoslavia back: not to the zones they had fled, but to countries on the Continent where they had paused on their way to Britain. Belgium received 24; Germany 5 to add to its 200,000- plus; Italy, Austria and Turkey two each; the United States one. Others are fighting similar deportations. Technically, the Home Office is justified in this action. Under the Dublin Convention of 1990, the European Community's 12 member states agreed that applications for asylum should be considered in the first safe country reached by the asylum- seeker. The Government did not state that on 21 July the UNHCR representative wrote to the Home Office requesting the Government to refrain, in a spirit of international burden-sharing, from this type of 'removal' to third countries.

Such a concept appears to be utterly alien to Whitehall: Britain would not, in the words of the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, want to encourage people 'to move further from Yugoslavia than they would be inclined to go'. The complete absence of any moral, let alone diplomatic, dimension in the Government's thinking is striking. When more than two million Bosnians have been displaced by the terrible strategy of 'ethnic cleansing', and when Britain's EC partners have been accepting a much greater share of the refugee burden, the Government adheres to the letter of a convention that greatly favours offshore parts of the EC.

Let the Government recall that in the years following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran took in three million and two million Afghan refugees respectively. Even poorer countries in Africa have been generous. When wars break out and people are being beaten, tortured, executed and driven from their homes, it is not conventions and treaties that matter. To pretend to be generous at such times while behaving meanly is not just hypocritical but despicable.