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Wednesday, April 7, 1999 Published at 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK

World: Europe

Analysis: Discord mars EU refugee effort

US naval base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: Could host 20,000 refugees

By Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason

EU foreign ministers are meeting in Luxembourg seeking to end the argument and confusion over the best way to help the vast numbers of refugees continuing to flood out of Kosovo.

Kosovo: Special Report
Many western governments have offered to give Kosovo Albanians refuge, in numbers ranging from 50 to tens of thousands.

Flights have begun to bring people out. But this is a drop in the ocean compared to the 600,000 which the United Nations estimates have left Kosovo for neighbouring countries in just under two weeks.

On Wednesday, interior ministers rejected calls for a mass evacuation of the refugee, saying it would send the wrong signal to President Slobodan Milosevic.

The airlift proposal was apparently initiated by the United States, partly in response to fears that the influx of refugees would destabilise Macedonia with its large Albanian minority.

The Macedonian government said that it could not take in any more unless other countries promised to accept them. The move was widely condemned: the British government rejected this kind of equivalence.

The United Kingdom, the United States' closest ally, agreed to accept several thousand refugees. But the airlift idea provoked confusion and criticism.

Aid minister Clare Short said it was irrelevant to the crisis, while the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said it would be better to deal with the refugees on the spot.

Airlift offers

In France, as in Italy, the government declined to make any specific offer to take in refugees.

The Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, said the international community must not give what would amount to de facto recognition of Serbia's deportation policy. The point was echoed by the European Union's senior humanitarian offical, Emma Bonino: she spoke of adding forced exile to forced deportation, and of the danger of helping with ethnic cleansing.

But in response to criticism from some politicians and in the French press, Mr Jospin said France would of course welcome temporarily a certain number of people. He also announced the tripling of French aid.

[ image: Oslo airport: Refugees arrive - but will they ever return home?]
Oslo airport: Refugees arrive - but will they ever return home?
Germany was one of the first to offer to accept ethnic Albanian refugees. But some second thoughts then set in. The Defence Ministry denied the figure of 40,000 attributed to the Germans by Nato. And officials emphasised that the priority should be to look after people in the region around Kosovo.

This has now become a common western line after a period of confusion and discordant voices, often characteristic of democracies.

The strategic reason is that airlifting large numbers of refugees out of the region sends the message - justified or not - that they are unlikely ever to go home. That, it is argued, gives a propaganda victory to Mr Milosevic.

It would also dishearten the refugees themselves; most of them would rather stay near Kosovo provided their immediate misery is relieved.

In addition, there are the enormous practical problems of evacuating people along bad roads to airports so that they can be flown out.

'Fortress Europe'

Unspoken but just as real is the reluctance of many western countries to accept refugees at all.

The tightening of immigration controls in the European Union has given rise to the expression "Fortress Europe".

There are fears of a racist backlash, especially perhaps in Germany which took by far the greatest number of Bosnian refugees a few years ago.

Chancellor Schröder has spoken of the need for fair sharing of the burden this time. The United States offered to take 20,000 people but intends to put them well out of the way at its naval base in Cuba or on the Pacific island territory of Guam.

In practice, a mixture of measures will be taken. The UN refugee agency says it is essential for some refugees at least to be airlifted out on an exceptional and temporary basis.

But the only real solution depends on the outcome of the military confrontation between Belgrade and the West - and that is deeply uncertain.

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