Leading Article: Our duty of care

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The Independent Online
NEVER HAVE the relative costs of military hardware and humanitarian aid been more graphically illustrated than in Yugoslavia, where we spend billions of dollars to bomb the Serbs but balk at finding a fraction of that to speed relief to the thousands of Albanians who struggle for survival in their escape from benighted Kosovo. While we fly B1 bombers several thousand miles across the Atlantic, we fail to sort out bureaucracy to let our soldiers move rations five miles across a Balkan hillside to save the starving. Modern Europe - that civilised territory - watches wretched, dirty and hopeless refugees fight for a loaf of bread even as eight million dollars' worth of cruise missiles explode on nearby Belgrade. Nato is indeed degrading the military resources of President Milosevic, but our failure adequately to support the refugees degrades and demeans us all.

In Washington, in London, in Brussels, there is increasing evidence of confusion at the heart of this military project; confusion about the ultimate war aim; confusion about the repercussions. No one, it is now clear, anticipated a refugee problem on the scale that has emerged, a humanitarian disaster undreamt of in Europe since the end of the Second World War. In Washington, fears about the fate of three American prisoners of war threaten to eclipse concern about two million Kosovan Albanians. In Brussels the EU politicians take their Easter break. In London politicians repeat the necessity of action. But action to achieve what?

Writing in this paper last February, the Prime Minister said: "One thing is certain: I will not agree to deploy British troops into Kosovo itself without a clear mission and clear objectives based on a political settlement agreed by both sides." Now there is talk if not of a ground offensive - though many military observers believe that only a ground offensive can achieve the aims of Nato - then of Nato troops forming a protective cordon to guard refugees in safe enclaves close to the Kosovan borders. The tactical debate goes on and the dispossessed will die in front of us; die of cold, die of hunger, die of disease. Shelter must be found now for those who have fled. Albania is well disposed towards its own but has little enough to feed them, Montenegro fears its own revolution, Macedonia will let in only those refugees that it is sure will leave again. Yesterday, Nato and the United Nations began talks with Macedonia about funding temporary refugee camps in that country. But they must not think that they have thus discharged their responsibilities. They must back such support by guaranteeing a permanent home for those refugees for whom there may be no future in Kosovo.

Populist headlines of recent months have complained of floods of east European immigrants. Britain is always said to be a soft touch. In reality, Germany has taken around a hundred times more refugees from former Yugoslavia. Last year the "flood" to Britain was 7,000 Kosovars (a couple of hours' worth of arrivals in Albania or Macedonia in recent days) who applied to stay in Britain, 935 of whom were accepted. If the current rules had been applied in the 1930s, it would have been well nigh impossible for Jews to be allowed into Britain. Mike O'Brien, the immigration minister, has acknowledged that it is only "with great difficulty" that a Kosovar can lodge a request to be a refugee in this country, let alone have it granted. It is certainly preferable for Kosovars to be able to stay in the region if there is any chance that they will return to their homes in the near future. But we cannot hide behind this cosy-sounding rhetoric in order to do nothing now. If we care enough about Albanians' suffering to launch a European war to save them, then there can be no excuse for failing to shoulder responsibility for the suffering that war has helped to bring about. One of the frightening euphemisms of modern warfare, brought into vogue in the Gulf War, is "collateral damage". The refugees from Kosovo are the collateral damage of this Nato action, and we must do whatever we can to support them.