Leading Article: A narrow view on refugees

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The Independent Online
WHEN interior ministers of the European Community meet to discuss immigration, several negative assumptions can be made. The ministers will be preoccupied not with helping those driven from their homelands but with keeping them out of member states. They will take a narrowly EC view of the problems discussed, ignoring the needs of other affected countries in both Western and Eastern Europe. And they will not include representatives of agencies that might defend international law and stand up for the rights of asylum-seekers. Suspicions that yesterday's meeting in London would be essentially negative were strengthened by an assurance from the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, that all the ministers were liberal chaps who could be trusted not to be inhumane.

Discussion focused on such narrowly technical issues as how best to deal with 'manifestly unfounded' asylum applications, 'best practice' on expulsions, and the definition of 'safe countries' (where persecution would be deemed unlikely). Yet, in the present context of a mass exodus from the former Yugoslavia, that was tinkering at the margins. Who could describe as 'manifestly unfounded' the claims to refugee status of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims whose relatives have been slaughtered and whose homes have been burnt or shelled?

The Bosnian tragedy is probably just the first of a series. That is why it is so important for EC ministers to raise their eyes from such technical matters to the larger issues. Of these the most important and most difficult is burden-sharing. It is plainly unjust that one member state, Germany, should be taking in by far the heaviest share, estimated to be 80 per cent, of Bosnian refugees. It is also dangerous, since the influx from Bosnia feeds the xenophobia fuelling the current racist outrages.

The crisis in Germany results largely from the liberal manner in which its constitutional duty to admit asylum-seekers has been interpreted, coupled with a very restrictive policy on naturalisation. Anyone from Eastern Europe able to prove distant German descent has been entitled to citizenship; but the children of Turkish 'guest-workers' born and brought up in Germany have had no right to dual nationality and can only with difficulty achieve German citizenship. In eastern Germany, hostility to foreigners has been exacerbated by a deep sense of inferiority left by the collapse of the old order and what amounted to a west German takeover.

The influx from Eastern Europe has compounded Germany's difficulties in forging its post-unification identity. Its laws must be changed, but meanwhile, Chancellor Helmut Kohl is entitled to expect a measure of solidarity on the refugee issue from his EC partners. Yesterday's announcement that Britain will take a further 4,000 Bosnian former detainees is better than nothing, but this country's record still looks mean-spirited compared with those of Sweden and Switzerland, as well as Germany.

The British government should have used its EC presidency to put forward an action plan to deal with the Bosnian refugee crisis and its likely successors. Burden-sharing in its widest sense should be part of such a scheme. By accentuating the negative, it has missed a chance to match its notable contribution to humanitarian relief in Bosnia with an equally generous initiative on the refugee issue.