Leading Article: Charity versus realism

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WHEN the United Nations Convention on Refugees was drawn up in 1951 it was designed mainly to assist individuals fleeing from political persecution. It defined a refugee as 'any person who, owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion' was afraid of returning to 'his former habitual residence'. The problem was thought to be largely European and temporary, a product of the aftermath of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War. Economic migration was a separate matter and not unwelcome in growing economies such as that of West Germany, which absorbed large numbers of foreign workers, as did Britain from its old empire.

Distinctions have now broken down under the new pressures created by turmoil in the Balkans, instability in Eastern Europe, war and poverty in large areas of the Third World, and recession and unemployment in Europe, which stiffen resistance to immigration. Ethnic groups facing political persecution and forcible expulsion now mingle with victims of war and famine as well as with workers moving voluntarily in search of better jobs. Individuals seeking refuge from prison and torture can easily become lost in the flood and be denied a proper hearing.

The ostensible purpose of the Asylum Bill, reintroduced into the House of Commons yesterday, is to reduce the risk of injustice by making life harder for those who are thought to be cluttering up the system with improper applications. The previous version of the Bill, which was withdrawn just before the election, was heavily criticised on many counts, notably for allowing deportation without oral appeal and for requiring applications to be made instantly on arrival. The new version is better on asylum but more restrictive towards visitors, which has already angered the Asian community.

Britain's problems are small compared with those of Germany. Britain received 44,745 applications for asylum last year, Germany 250,000, with another 320,000 in the first nine months of this year and a backlog of about half a million awaiting attention. Britain could, therefore, afford to be somewhat more generous. Yet, although there will remain limited room for national variations, the main response must be European, given the commitment to free movement within the Community. The Maastricht treaty includes asylum policy among matters of 'common interest' and a great deal of work has been done at Community level since the Trevi group was set up in 1975.

There is no way that Europe can avoid imposing somewhat tighter controls on immigrants of all types. European economies are in no state to absorb large numbers of foreign workers, and several states, particularly Germany, are vulnerable to political pressures from the extreme right. Nor can the problem be solved quickly by giving aid to the troubled areas from which the refugees come, desirable though that is. Charity has to be tempered with realism. There are dangers, however, that anxiety could displace charity altogether. Europe will become an unhealthy and vulnerable place if it builds too high a wall against those less fortunate than itself or responds inflexibly to catastrophes nearer home, such as the war in Yugoslavia.