Letter: Government policy on Yugoslav asylum seekers

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your front-page article and editorial ('A genius for hypocrisy') of 12 August about Yugoslav refugees in the United Kingdom misrepresents the Government's policy, which was fully set out in the Home Secretary's statement of 31 July.

The United Kingdom has fully respected the call of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees not to raise visa barriers against the arrival of refugees from the republics of the former Yugoslavia. We are the only European Community country not to have a visa regime against any of the republics. To suggest, as you do, that the 4,000 Yugoslavs who have entered the UK each month since the beginning of the year are 'merely visiting relatives' is contradicted by a number of stories that the Independent itself has carried about the circumstances of Yugoslav visitors in the UK.

Because of the absence of a visa regime for Yugoslavs in the UK, the Home Secretary is anxious that it should not be assumed that any Yugoslav refugee who has found safety in another country should be free to move to the UK without further formality. This is a normal principle of international law that has been, and continues to be, applied by all refugee-receiving countries. That is why a small number of Yugoslav asylum seekers have been returned to countries in which they have stayed before coming to the UK. But the Home Secretary has made it clear that we will operate this policy with particular flexibility in the case of ex-Yugoslav nationals, as I indicated in a letter that I sent to the London representative of the UNHCR on 10 August in which I said:

We do recognise the special circumstances of Yugoslavia and the policy will be operated flexibly. In particular in the normal course of events we will not make third country returns where an applicant has merely transitted through other countries, staying less than a day or two in any one of them. We shall also look favourably on close connections with this country, including in particular family connections, when considering whether it would be appropriate for an asylum claim to be considered here.

The fact that since the beginning of the year, of the 2,000 Yugoslavs who have claimed asylum in the UK - the vast majority of whom arrived from safe third countries - only 36 have been returned to third countries gives some indication of the flexibility with which we have been applying this policy. There is absolutely no question of anyone being returned to a war zone in Yugoslavia. But when other safe countries have a prior responsibility towards an individual we expect them to honour it. Where, on the other hand, an asylum seeker has made directly for the UK - even if transitting other countries on the way - or has family or close connections here, his claim will be considered here.

Yours faithfully,

CHARLES WARDLE

Parliamentary Under-Secretary

Home Office

London, SW1

12 August

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