Leading Article: Save their skins - let the Bosnians in

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN's failure to respond adequately to the Yugoslav refugee crisis is a failure of will and a failure of common sense. Britain could easily make a public offer of temporary refuge to the people fleeing the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many other countries have done so: not just rich Germany, which has taken in more than 200,000 people, but poorer countries such as Hungary, which has accepted 100,000. By refusing to share the burden, Britain has looked mean, and has strained its relations with Europe.

It is a failure of common sense because it takes no account of the realities on the ground in the former Yugoslavia. The Government takes the view that the two million or more people who have lost their homes must be confined within the borders of the old Yugoslav state. To let them cross those borders, it says, would be to offer implicit support to the policy of 'ethnic cleansing', the practice by which one nationality (in Bosnia's case, the Serbs) systematically expels another nationality (the Muslim Slavs) from their towns and villages.

But where exactly in the former Yugoslavia does the Government propose the Muslim refugees should go? To other parts of Bosnia? Out of the question: a war is raging there, and the Serbs control 60 per cent of the republic. To Serbia and Montenegro? No Muslim in his right mind would enter the lion's den. To Macedonia or Slovenia? They are too small to take on such an enormous task.

That leaves only Croatia. But Croatia is already overflowing with more than 600,000 refugees; more than one in eight people there are people displaced by the fighting not only in Bosnia but in Croatia itself last year. The Croatian economy, thrown into chaos by the war, cannot take the strain of handling still more refugees. The government in Zagreb was compelled three weeks ago to state that it would not accept any new arrivals; instead, they would be instantly shunted to the Slovenian and Hungarian frontiers. As it happens, the Croatian government did relent a little later and took in 14,000 more refugees, of whom 5,000 went to Germany. But it is no solution to cram hundreds of thousands of homeless people into Croatia.

These facts may be unpalatable to a British Government that often gives the impression that it regards the Yugoslav crisis as a continental problem, irrelevant to an island people. But it is difficult to gainsay them. That means that every country in Europe needs to help. Germany understands this and has rebuked Britain's hands- off policy. Germany, of course, is richer and closer to the conflict - but it has also spent the past four years coping with an influx of ethnic Germans from Poland, Romania and the old Soviet Union, as well as a massive internal migration from east to west. In any case the argument of adjacency hardly applies to Sweden or the Netherlands, which have both been seen to do more than Britain.

Britain's attitude stands in stark contrast to the determination it showed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and after the Gulf war ended and it became clear that the Kurds of Iraq were in serious danger. Then, in both cases, Britain played a significant part in the international response. It made a useful contribution to the US- led military campaign against Iraq, while some other European countries dithered, and it took a lead in setting up 'safe havens' for the Kurds. So why this prolonged paralysis over the Yugoslav crisis when we face the biggest refugee wave in Europe since the Second World War?

Immigration may be one factor. The difference between the refugee and the immigrant is not always an easy distinction for governments or electorates to make. The Muslims of Bosnia, however, are not fleeing their homes because they have heard of British social security payments or the standards of treatment in trust hospitals. They are seeking temporary shelter from a war in which their lives are at risk. Bosnia's Muslims would like nothing better than to return to their homes. Since that is impossible, they are asking for humanitarian support abroad. When conditions are right, they will return.

When will conditions be right? That depends on how long the war lasts and how it ends. Here Britain carries special responsibilities as it holds the presidency of the European Community until January. The Government is convening a conference in London later this month that will bring together the warring parties, the EC and the United Nations. Perhaps it will prove as futile as previous such meetings. Perhaps, too, that will not be the fault of Britain and its EC partners. Every side in this war has great reserves of cynicism and dishonesty, and each regards the struggle as a matter of national survival.

Should the West then intervene with troops and arms? Some experienced observers, including David Owen, say so. They identify Serbia as the principal aggressor and speak of attacking specific Serbian military targets. But here at least Britain is right to be cautious. Armed intervention, short of the massive deployment of ground troops, would not end Serbian control over hundreds of small towns and villages in Bosnia. Would we resist not only Serbian expansionism in Bosnia, but Croatian expansionism too? If so, are we seriously contemplating fighting a war against two of the republic's three nationalities?

A more workable approach is to persist with the trade, oil and arms sanctions against Serbia and make sure they are rigorously applied. The sanctions have already begun to grind down Serbia's economy and its war machine. We must hope that weariness and exhaustion will induce the Serbian authorities to talk peace or force a change of regime in Belgrade. That will not immediately restore Bosnia's territorial integrity, but it is the best bet for the moment. Meantime, the urgent task is to help the refugees.