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Wednesday, May 5, 1999 Published at 20:58 GMT 21:58 UK


Thousands of refugees to fly to UK

One of the first Kosovan families to arrive in the UK is now settling in

The UK is preparing for the arrival of thousands of Kosovans, as Home Office officials travel to Macedonia to organise the airlift of refugees.

The BBC's Kevin Bocquet: "There's been a positive response from the citizens of Sheffield"
Eventually, Home Secretary Jack Straw told the Commons on Wednesday, one plane would be arriving every day to help relieve pressure on the camps on the northern border of the former Yugoslav republic.

Two plane-loads, each holding about 160 people, could arrive at Prestwick airport, in Ayrshire, Scotland, on Sunday, with flights building up until a weekly total of about 1000 refugees is reached.

Brits in Balkans

The warmth of the reception given to the first plane-load of refugees, which arrived in Leeds last month, has encouraged the government to increase the numbers taken.

Local authorities are drawing on whatever accommodation they can find in the short term, while plans are drawn up to provide shelter if the crisis drags on into the coming months.

The Refugee Council, which has been organising housing for the 330 that have arrived in the UK so far, is drawing on contingency plans compiled with local councils in the early days of the conflict.

[ image: Camps have been described as grossly overcrowded]
Camps have been described as grossly overcrowded
These included housing refugees in former old people's homes, disused hospitals and schools, prisons and even a disused holiday camp in Morecambe, Lancashire.

In Sheffield, council workmen are refurbishing a disused school to provide temporary accomodation for up to 80 refugees.

The council's chief executive Bob Kerslake said the response from across the city had been "positive and understanding".

He said: "Inevitably there will be some demands on council services, but we do see it as a moral responsibilty for the city to play its part in what is a humanitarian crisis."

The Prison Service said it may be able to offer several thousand places.

Focus on the vulnerable

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says Kosovo Albabians in Macedonia will be chosen, on a volunteer basis, to come to the UK if they have family connections but priority will be given to the vulnerable.

Kosovo: Special Report
"We are focusing primarily on those who cannot support life in the grossly overcrowded camps - people with special needs, children, the elderly, households headed by females with no support", said Lyndall Sachs, UNHCR spokeswoman in London.

Those arriving would be offered one year's exceptional leave to remain and would be entitled to claim all benefits.

They will also be allowed to apply for full refugee status and seek work while in the UK.

But Home Office Minister Michael O'Brien was keen to stress that the UK is providing "temporary refuge" and that its ultimate aim was to ensure the safe return of Kosovans to their homeland.

"The objective of our policy is to assist as much as we can Kosovans who want to remain in the region - that's most of them - but also to welcome those who want to come to Britain for temporary refuge until they can return home," he told the BBC's One O'Clock News.

Anger over Asylum Bill

While the incoming refugees from Kosovo are granted special refugee status, the government has defended the Asylum and Immigration Bill currently under discussion by a committee of MPs.

[ image: Work begins to create suitable accommodation]
Work begins to create suitable accommodation
Nick Hardwick, from the Refugee Council, said in the light of the worst refugee crisis since the war the government would be foolhardy to press ahead with the legislation and a growing number of Labour MPs share his concerns.

But the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told a news conference the new system was more effective, fairer and would ensure genuine refugees were processed more quickly.

He said the current system was a mess with a huge backlog of cases stacked up and some applicants waiting years to be processed.

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