Leading Article: A mean response to tragedy

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IN BOSNIA horrors reminiscent of the Second World War are taking place. Women and children are being transported in searing heat in cattle waggons, and dying for lack of water. Men are being herded into camps. In some, they are virtually starved, in others, shot at night. Around two million people, many of them Muslims, have been driven from their homes by 'ethnic cleansing', perpetrated mainly by Serbs. In Croatia alone there are around 630,000 refugees. The cost of feeding and sheltering them is put at pounds 50m a month, war damage at pounds 10bn.

Britain is a country with a history of generosity to victims of oppression. It rose to the occasion, for example, when the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian revolt in 1956, and when Idi Amin drove the industrious Asian minority from Uganda in 1972. But anyone hoping for a comparable act of imaginative generosity at yesterday's emergency aid meeting in Geneva will have hoped in vain.

The best solution, said the Foreign Office minister Baroness Chalker, was to help people on the spot. As for financial aid to those providing relief, Britain would contribute an extra pounds 5m, making a total so far of pounds 28.3m of bilateral and multilateral aid: a substantial sum, but only a little more than two weeks' worth of Croatia's refugee bills.

Of course there is some miserable logic in Britain's position: that it is preferable, and more cost-effective, to help the refugees as near as possible to their former homes, to which most of them hope to return. And yet how convenient that argument is for a government loath to share the burden of actually receiving some of these fellow Europeans. No matter that the Germans have taken in 200,000, the Austrians and Hungarians 50,000 each, the Swedes and Swiss, not exactly Bosnia's neighbours, 44,000 and 18,000 respectively. The grand total for Britain is 1,300 asylum-seekers, who made it on their own to our shores. Providing money is one thing, accepting refugees, even on a temporary basis, is far more demanding. It is unfair that those who happen to be nearest should bear the brunt.

The British argument also ignores the possibility that Bosnia's displaced Muslims may never regain their homes. The war there is about territory. It would probably require a full-scale military intervention to force the Serbs to hand back the zones they have 'cleansed' of Muslims. The same applies to the idea, advocated by the French and Italians, of establishing safe havens for refugees. They would, in all probability, come to resemble Palestinian refugee camps, from which desperate men would venture to commit desperate acts for decades to come.

Over the present tragedy looms the fear of even greater tragedies to come: in Kosovo, in Macedonia, in the strife-ridden former republics of the Soviet Union. The British are among those most frightened of setting precedents. Yet politicians tend to underestimate public sympathy for victims of catastrophes such as Bosnia's, and to overestimate public hostility to refugees. The Germans are right: the EC member states should share the burden. It is a challenge to their solidarity. One day, furthermore, Britain, too, may face a similar influx and need the help of its partners. Its present attitude is neither honourable nor in the nation's long-term interests.