Leading Article: Refugees in a tragic farce

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HISTORY may often run first as tragedy and then as farce, but it rarely happens that both plays run simultaneously at theatres on opposite sides of the same street. Yet this is exactly what has happened with the war in the sad territory that used to be Yugoslavia. The tragedy is all too familiar from our television screens. The farce is the European Community's response to it - which contains enough errors to fill five acts.

Throughout the play, it is the craven motives of European politicians - their wish to posture at home without spending much money or shedding soldiers' lives abroad - that have been at the heart of the EC's confusion. And the different interests of the EC's various members have made things harder still. Germany, with its vociferous minorities, wanted to speed up the recognition of Croatia. And Greece, with its fears of an expansionist Macedonian republic, was willing to do almost anything to stop the other 11 from recognising its independence.

In one European decision on Yugoslavia, however - the question of what to do about refugees from the war - the British government had a leading part. When Britain took over the EC's rotating presidency in summer 1992, it was evident that millions, rather than mere thousands, of civilians were being displaced by the fighting. The Foreign Office and the Home Office agreed on a firm line. The Community must not collaborate in the process of 'ethnic cleansing', they said. Rather, it should seek to give food and medical help on the ground and to establish 'safe havens', as in Iraq, where minorities could stay in safety without fleeing.

That policy was attacked as dishonest at the time, but it could at least be said to be consistent. Now, however, it has demonstrably failed. Ethnic cleansing has continued apace; the safe havens are a bitter joke; and the partition of Bosnia, whether into three pieces or into cantons as the Vance-Owen plan proposes, is now a certainty. The grisly reality of what has happened there - from camps to rapes to the burning and razing of entire villages - is now undeniable. Meanwhile, Germany, which admitted more refugees than any other country, has begun the process of amending its asylum laws to keep newcomers out.

The time has come for Britain's policy to be reconsidered. The Home Secretary should redress the absurd imbalance that has resulted in 50 refugees of the war being admitted to Germany for every one to Britain. The cases of the 6,500 or so asylum-seekers who are now in Britain on temporary visas should be speedily and humanely decided. The Government should go back to its EC partners with a single approach to the Yugoslav refugee problem that accepts the Community's moral obligations to its eastern neighbours. No one believes that finding a home for asylum-seekers is easy; as the German government has found, it brings problems of its own. But that is no excuse for the Community not to do more.