Taking the sting out of Bosnia

The Government should reflect the mood of the nation and make a generous gesture on refugees; Small, unsung operations of rescue have been going on
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The Independent Online
Bosnia stings. It's under the skin. Nothing can be done, say the Ministers who Know; ''Whatever you suggest, it is not possible. There is this reason. And there is that.'' Yet Bosnia stings. We shall see whether air strikes or the reopening of the road to Sarajevo can help the dying government there. But while we are waiting, there is the small matter of refugees.

To be specific, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has done a rarely done thing, which is to make a public appeal to 30 governments, including Britain, to take more refugees from Bosnia: 5,000 in total plus contingency planning for a further 50,000 should the war erupt with new savagery. This is because of the flood of misery from the ''safe areas'' and because Croatia can no longer cope with the 400,000 or so people squatting in camps, school buildings and shanties there.

The British response, thus far, has been stone-cold. Officially, the request is being considered. Unofficially, the agencies involved have had a frosty reply. All the governments being tapped are looking silently around them, hoping somebody else will make the first move.

It would be wrong, no doubt, to personalise this. It would be unseemly, and crude, and merely journalistic, to note that a cabinet which includes a Home Secretary, a Defence Secretary and a Foreign Secretary whose families escaped here from less civilised moments of Europeanness should be particularly open to the agony of a suffering people who have been failed diplomatically and militarily.

It would be crude - but what the heck. My guess is that if Michael Howard stood up at the Conservative Party conference in October and gave it to them straight from the shoulder about why it was right to let in Bosnian refugees, he'd get a bigger cheer than he believes possible. For across the country, there is that sting. There is a desperation to be useful.

The British have always seen themselves as a generous people, particularly towards victims of Continental oppression. There's some historical justification for this; of the 250,000 Huguenots fleeing from Catholic France after the Edict of Nantes in 1685, a high proportion came here, though many went to Prussia and America, too. The great waves of Italian and Polish refugees in the 19th century produced strong and long-lived communities in most of the big British cities - the Italians in particular pervading and changing British life greatly for the better.

But our record on Jewish immigration in the Thirties can at best be described as mixed. Official figures for arrivals of German, Austrian and Czech Jews had reached nearly 19,000 by 1938 (though many more had probably slipped in before then) and 6,066 were accepted as refugees in three months alone. These seem relatively small figures, given that 400,000 Jews escaped Hitler over the period. The British government was hostile to requests from the Jewish National Council to be allowed to take 10,000 Jewish children to Palestine.

As for Jewish children who arrived here, ministers agreed in 1938 that 5,000 should be taken ''for training in agriculture and domestic service for re-emigration later to the Colonial Empire ... the expenses are borne by private charity.'' Given the huge benefit Britain has received back from Jewish immigrants since the war this shows, at best, a stolid Saxon lack of imagination.

Much later, when 28,500 Ugandan Asians were admitted in 1972, it provoked an agonised and at times nasty national rethink about nationality and immigration; yet the Ugandan and Kenyan Asians have been extremely successful here. Great timidity and caution about the Hong Kong Chinese meant that the best and brightest, people our economy desperately needed, have mostly gone to Canada and the US instead. The chilly scepticism shown by the Home Office about taking Bosnian refugees is nothing new.

Though around 11,000 people from former Yugoslavia are currently in Britain, only 2,500 are officially sanctioned Bosnian refugees, taken in after the previous UNHCR appeal in October 1992. Britain had agreed to take more, but this was an operation limited largely to people held in Serb prison camps and some of the original list are dead, disappeared or trapped.

It's worth noting that Germany, which admittedly has provided no military help, has 400,000 refugees from the area. Bavaria alone has nearly six times as many as Britain.

How well have those who've arrived since 1992 done? On the plus side, they are almost all living in their own homes, provided by housing associations, private landlords and local authorities in London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, West Yorkshire (mostly Dewsbury and Batley) and the Midlands, mainly in Coventry, Birmingham and Derby.

Most came from rural Bosnia, a mix of small-time farmers, bakers, shopkeepers, agricultural engineers and mechanics. How have they integrated? Well, there have been some culture clashes, though not necessarily of the sort one would assume. For instance, some of the British Muslim groups who campaigned for them have been taken aback to find that their Islamic brethren from Bosnia are cheerful drinkers and smokers and far more liberal than the radicalised Muslim youth of Middle England.

More seriously, many are still badly traumatised. You only have to scan a typical day's news bulletin to know they won't be going back. According to Nick Scott-Flynn, who runs the Refugee Council's Bosnian Project, although most are living on social security, some have found jobs as mini-cab drivers and in restaurants (those two staple trades of immigrants everywhere throughout this century). They are, in short, managing, though they need considerable help from the taxpayer and from volunteers of all sorts. A refugee is for life.

None of this seems any sort of bar to us taking more. The issue of Bosnian settlement in Britain has thus far been so controversial that it hasn't been mentioned by any media (that I can discover) at all. It has passed off silently. And, as I say, there is an itch to do more. Across the country small, unsung operations of rescue and succour have been going on; when Anna Ford advertised her willingness in the Daily Telegraph recently to take inBosnian refugees, she was apparently snowed under by letters from the like-minded.

So although, in the mindset of contemporary Conservatism, it probably seems that it would be a bold - even silly - thing to respond generously to the UNHCR, I don't believe it's so. Labour's Robin Cook, who isn't exactly short of political nous, was quick to demand a bit of benevolence; he has read the mood rightly.

Bosnia has been a reckoning for ideas of British might and leadership. There is a widespread, if quiet, sense of shame and pity in the country - or so my postbag suggests - and doing a little for a few refugees is about the most modest reaction. Now how would it feel if, just for once, the British government was first, and boldest, and went a bit further than it was expected to? I think it would feel good. Because Bosnia stings.