FACED with its worst refugee crisis since World War II, Europe is beginning to coordinate its response to the hundreds of thousands of families displaced by nearly 11 months of warfare in the former Yugoslavia.
With the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reporting more than 1.3 million people displaced as a result of the fighting, European countries are stepping up efforts to provide shelter, food, and supplies for those driven from their homes. The response is both humanitarian and self-interested.
Television scenes of carnage and ruin - first in Croatia, now in Bosnia-Herzegovina - have shocked Europeans who thought war and refugees existed only on other continents. This week's saga of a convoy of Bosnians held hostage by Serb militiamen - thousands of women and children fleeing to neighboring Croatia - is once again putting a human face on the tragedy.
Yet with memories still strong of last summer's boatloads of Albanian refugees landing in Italy, and of earlier streams of arrivals from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Western European countries hope to avoid a massive influx of refugees to their borders. 'Real' refugees
"It's the first time we're seeing refugees put in tents in Europe since World War II," says Sylvana Foa, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata. "But these are not people who are looking for an excuse to start a new life elsewhere. These are people who want to go home."
In response to a continuing argument across Europe over the issue of refugee status, there is general official and public agreement that the former Yugoslavia's displaced are genuine refugees, and not "economic migrants" looking for work in the West.
Coordination of Europe's response was spearheaded by Austria, which organized a meeting yesterday drawing together Western and Eastern European countries - including two former Yugoslav republics - relief organizations, European Community and Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe representatives, and Ms. Ogata.
"We feel there is a serious need to evaluate the situation, establish who is already doing what, and then to see how we can best help the countries most affected by the arrival of refugees," said Karl Vetter von der Lilie, director of the Austrian Foreign Ministry's section for refugees and humanitarian assistance. Speaking before yesterday's meeting, Mr. Vetter von der Lilie added that aid would likely include "both material assistance and taking people in for temporary resettlement."
The largest part by far of the war's refugees have stayed within the former Yugoslavia. According to UNHCR figures, more than 1 million of the displaced have fled to other parts of their own republic or to a neighboring republic.
UNHCR anticipates a jump in the numbers displaced in Bosnia.
Of the 250,000 refugees that UNHCR estimates have sought safety elsewhere, nearly half went to Germany, while 60,000 went to Hungary, 27,000 to Sweden, and 5,000 to Italy.
Austrian officials say that since last June their country has taken in 30,000 refugees - but most of these were Croatians who have since returned home. "Most of them came to stay with family, so they weren't really noticed," Vetter von der Lilie says.
Now Bosnians are arriving and they generally do not have family to stay with. "These people have to be taken care of by the government, housed and fed," he says.
One concern is that the spread of the conflict from one republic to another will encourage more refugees to flee the country.
Italy took measures this week to facilitate the management of temporary asylum seekers from Bosnia. But officials emphasized that the problem should be addressed by the entire EC. Germany criticized
Germany has been hit with some criticism for requiring visas of Bosnians. But German officials note that anyone arriving in Germany and demanding refugee status is admitted for a case review.
"I would also emphasize that Germany is the largest single donor of humanitarian aid," says a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry. "Our feeling is that there needs to be more aid forthcoming from more sources so that these people don't have to leave" their region.
UNHCR says the refugee problem should not be left to Europe to handle. "There is an urgent need for international burden-sharing, and not just in Europe," Ms. Foa says.
Despite the tragedy of the Yugoslav population, officials note that the dimensions of the refugee problem pale in comparison to similar problems in much poorer regions of the world.
"More than 2.5 million Afghanis are in Pakistan, more than 1 million Mozambicans are refugees in Malawi," Foa says. "And we never hear the Malawis complain."