Leading Article: Mr Wardle fails to convince

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The Independent Online
IT IS a useful part of democratic debate that ministers should answer criticism of their departments by writing letters to newspapers. The one we printed yesterday from Charles Wardle, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office, was a revealing example of that tradition. In it he sought to justify the deportation this year from Britain to other European countries (mainly Belgium) of 36 refugees from what was Yugoslavia.

To judge by the result, Mr Wardle did not find his task easy. He started with a bit of self- congratulation that, as a letter on this page today points out, was inaccurate: Britain, he said, is the only EC country not to raise visa barriers against refugees from any of the republics of the former Yugoslavia. Yet if Germany can accept more than 200,000 asylum seekers with a visa regime, it is surely all the more pathetic that Britain can manage only some 1,300 without one. It must be obvious even to Mr Wardle that the Germans are bringing humanity rather than the strict letter of their regulations to bear on the issue.

Second, Mr Wardle sought to claim credit for the 4,000 non-asylum-seeking Yugoslavs who have entered the UK each month since the beginning of the year. By no means, he wrote, were they all 'merely visiting relatives', as we had suggested. His claim would have been more convincing if the monthly average of Yugoslav visitors in 1990, before the conflict broke out, had not been 6,000. Third, Mr Wardle stated that the Home Secretary does not want it to be assumed, because of our visa-free entry regime, that 'any Yugoslav refugee who has found safety in another country should be free to move to the UK without further formality'. He described that as 'a normal principle of international law'. It explained why a 'small number', later described as 'only 36', of Yugoslav asylum seekers had been returned to countries where they had stayed on the way.

While apparently expecting readers to be impressed by the Government's generosity, Mr Wardle is also being misleading. The relevant act, called the Dublin Convention, is an intergovernmental EC agreement that only Britain and Denmark have ratified and which is therefore not in force. Not surprisingly, the Home Office is happy to work 'in its spirit', a spokeswoman said yesterday.

Denying an accusation no one has made is a favourite trick of those who are on the defensive. Mr Wardle went on to write: 'There is absolutely no question of anyone being returned to a war zone in Yugoslavia.' Who could have thought the Government capable of such inhumanity? Yet there are limits to the flexibility with which the Home Office is prepared to apply its policy of deportation: 'when other safe countries have a prior responsibility towards an individual we expect them to honour it'.

It was precisely from that type of deportation that the London representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked the Government to refrain - in a spirit of international burden-sharing - in a letter of 21 July. In moral terms, no safe country in Europe has a prior responsibility towards any refugee: ideally, all should share the responsibilities according to their size and wealth. It is unfair that those nearest should bear a grossly disproportionate share of the burden. Of that moral dimension Mr Wardle and the Home Office appear to be sublimely unaware.