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Thursday, May 6, 1999 Published at 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK

How warm is the UK welcome?

Refugees queueing up waiting to leave Kosovo

By BBC News Online's Jane Harbidge

Imagine being forced to abandon your home, your belongings, your everyday life. Imagine being separated from some of your family. Imagine being herded into a camp alongside thousands of others, also in shock, as a massive purge sweeps your country.

Kosovo: Special Report
It would be the most traumatic experience anyone could live through. However much you crave returning home, the chance to escape to a new life, in a friendly country, away from danger, would be more than tempting.

This is the prospect facing thousands of Kosovars, ordinary people suddenly uprooted from their ordinary homes and labelled refugees, now suffering the misery of overcrowded camps in Albania and Macedonia.

[ image: Conditions in the camps are basic]
Conditions in the camps are basic
Home Secretary Jack Straw says that within two or three weeks, a plane-load of refugees could be arriving in Britain every day.

But will their welcome live up to its promise? What can Britain do to help them assimilate? And what lessons have been learned from earlier mass intakes?

The Refugee Council plans to house families in former old people's homes, disused hospitals and schools, prisons and even a disused holiday camp in Morecambe.

Abuse but no benefits

The Home Office says those arriving will be offered one year's exceptional leave to remain and may claim benefits. It says they will also be allowed to apply for full refugee status, without losing their benefits.

[ image: Refugees arriving in the UK]
Refugees arriving in the UK
But some refugees already here have had a very different experience. While they are grateful for the practical help and freedom, they have been told they may not work yet, nor are they entitled to cash benefits. They also have no idea when their asylum application will be processed. Problems with the immigration service's computer have meant huge backlogs.

Another serious problem has been racist abuse. Solicitor Shameen Khan says many Kosovo refugees now want to move on.

"Some of my clients are saying: 'We were subjected to persecution in a war zone. We have now arrived in England where we are subjected to racist abuse and harassment.'"

In the past, the experience of other communities who immigrated en masse has been mixed.

Top businesspeople

About 29,000 Ugandan Asians came to Britain when they were expelled by Idi Amin in the 1970s. Despite the upheaval, many went on to be high-fliers. Studies show they are among the most successful British businesspeople.

The seaside town of Tywyn, in Gwynedd, Mid Wales, which took 5,000 Ugandans 30 years ago, could see history repeating itself if refugees are taken to a disused military camp.

[ image: Families say they are grateful to be in the UK]
Families say they are grateful to be in the UK
Townspeople say Kosovan refugees would receive as warm a welcome as the Ugandan Asians did.

Shopkeeper John Markham said: "To see a large community on your doorstep where you had never seen them before was quite startling. It wasn't like Cardiff or Birmingham and other places that have their own ethnic communities.

"But the acceptance was there. The local people never looked on them as unfriendly."

Over the years, the Ugandan Asians settled in. "They were the prosperous side of the community," said Mr Markham.

"The refugees have all created their own businesses now and are probably progressing as well in Britain as over there."

Not all the newcomers stayed put. In the 1970s, Britain had a policy of "dispersal" - refugees were supposed to avoid areas such as London and Leicester, which already had large ethnic populations.

But they gravitated to areas where friends and relatives had gone to live, despite attempts to persuade them to spread out. They borrowed money from family and friends to set up homes and businesses. The dispersal policy became discredited and Britain learned a lesson.

Nicholas Vanhear, a senior researcher with the Refugee Studies Programme in Oxford, said studies showed many East African Asians had been more successful than UK whites in house ownership, setting up new businesses and educational achievements.

In the Midlands alone, Ugandan Asians have created 30,000 jobs.

Avoiding mistakes

In an exercise just as unpopular as the Ugandan one, boat people fleeing Vietnam were thinly spread around Britain, leaving them isolated from other Vietnamese and support services.

[ image: A child is taken to board a plane]
A child is taken to board a plane
This time, the Home Office has indicated it wants to avoid repeating those mistakes.

And refugees arriving from Bosnia over the past decade have been sent to "cluster" communities in Derby, Dewsbury, Glasgow, Oxford, the North East and London.

Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, herself a former Ugandan Asian, is adamant that newcomers must not be dispersed: "We need to rethink how refugees and asylum-seekers are viewed before governments can be released from the pressures that generate such policies," she wrote.

Bringing their own counsellors

There will also be a host of other issues to consider.

Peter Loizos, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, says: "Obviously in the short-term, they need somewhere comfortable and safe to live. They need basic possessions.

[ image: One of many children to arrive]
One of many children to arrive
"After that, if feasible, they need to be placed with people with whom they have something in common, such as people from the same village.

"With some exceptions, such as rape, they will provide each other with counselling and therapy. They'll meet each other's emotional needs.

"They will think that ordinary British people, however nice, won't understand what they've been through. They may empathise and imagine, but haven't had the experience.

"But warmth and smiles are very important. Even small gifts will mean a great deal, so they have the sense that they are welcome.

"In the intermediate term, people will feel bored and worried. So schools will be needed - it will give [Kosovar] Albanian adults a distraction and be good for children, helping normalise life.

"Refugees will bring many skills - from doctors, lawyers, teachers and journalists to agricultural management. If we can help get them working, we are helping them to help themselves by not assuming they can't do anything."

But Professor Loizos warns not everyone will find work in their field.

He said other practical ways to help them would be giving them free telephone calls and internet access to trace lost family.

'No handouts'

Maryanne Loughry, a Refugee Studies Programme psychologist, says second generation Vietnamese have been valuable links between their parents' generation and British culture.

She says it is important for the refugees to be put in touch with Kosovars already living in Britain.

"Above all, they will need their own resources so they aren't dependent on handouts, and we should be asking them what they need."

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