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Sunday, April 25, 1999 Published at 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK


UK prepares for first wave of refugees

The UK Government has been criticised for not doing enough to help

Final preparations are being made for the arrival of nearly 150 Kosovo refugees, the first to arrive in the UK since the start of the Nato bombing campaign.

Kosovo: Special Report
The refugees, mainly women and children, have been staying in camps in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

On arrival at Leeds Bradford Airport on Sunday, they will be given medical checks, and where necessary hospital treatment.

The original announcement came as a joint statement from Home Secretary Jack Straw and International Development Secretary Clare Short.

Rageh Omaar watches as families leave exile in Macedonia for exile in the UK
An official said very few are expected to need immediate medical treatment, but all will have been traumatised by their experiences.

The Refugee Council, which is co-ordinating arrangements to care for refugees arriving in the UK, said those arriving on Sunday would be mostly women and children.

Nick Hardwick: "This is a particularly vulnerable group"
Leeds City Council said any needing medical attention would be taken to hospital immediately and social workers would also be on hand to help.

Plans are still being finalised but it is expected that those well enough will be taken to hotels before moving to official reception centres.

The group of refugees - fewer than the 250 originally expected - will travel on a chartered Macedonian Airlines plane.

Leeds City Council Leader Councillor Brian Walker: "We've been overwhelmed by the kindness of the people in Leeds"
All refugees will be allowed to claim benefits and will be entitled to work while they are in the UK. Children of school age will be sent to a local school.

A Home Office spokeswoman said they would all be given 12 months exceptional leave to remain and could apply for refugee status.

The refugees arriving on Sunday are expected to be just the first wave of people to arrive from the crowded Macedonian camps.

[ image: The refugees are traumatised]
The refugees are traumatised
Refugee Council Chief Executive Nick Hardwick said: "We are particularly grateful to the local authority in Leeds and other agencies for the wonderful response they have given to the arrival of this group of refugees."

He appealed for the refugees' need for privacy and quiet to be respected in the days after their arrival. These refugees will have faced great trauma", he said.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which is working in Macedonia to organise the evacuations, said it would be submitting a request to the UK Government to receive a further 400 people in the next few days.

Brits in Balkans
But the government has been criticised for not doing enough to help the refugees.

Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown pointed out that Germany had already taken 10,000 refugees. He said the UK must take its fair share of refugees to help prevent Macedonia from being plunged into chaos.

And Labour MP Ann Clwyd said she was concerned that the UK was not ready to take in enough, and was discouraging them from coming to the country.

Amnesty International Director David Bull: "The UK's commitment is a shameful tokenism"
She said: "While everyone knows that the ideal situation would be for refugees to be able to return home, the reality is that they will not be returning home in the forseeable future.

"It is therefore imperative that the British Government makes it clear that refugees are told that they may come to Britain as soon as possible, so there is no further ambiguity."

Jack Straw: "We have said that we will take some thousands of refugees from the area"
Some reports have also suggested that Germany is unhappy with the UK's attitude.

But Jack Straw has defended the government's policy on refugees, insisting that it was following the policy agreed by the European Union.

He said the government would continue to "respond positively" to UNHCR requests, but stressed that the refugee problem had to be resolved in the Balkans.

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