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Monday, April 5, 1999 Published at 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK

UK Politics

Short attacks refugee plans

The UK will take thousands of refugees

The UK Government has defended its plans to accept thousands of Kosovan refugees, after the move was branded "irrelevant" by one of its own ministers.

Kosovo: Special Report
Britain announced it would give temporary protection to a small number of the ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo on Sunday, amid Nato bombing and extensive reports of brutality by Serb forces.

An airlift of refugees to Nato countries is due to begin on Monday from a transit camp in Macedonia.

Short: Getting refugees out "irrelevant"
But, speaking during a fact-finding mission in the region, International Development Secretary Clare Short said: "Moving people out of the region is doing exactly what [Serb President] Milosevic wants."

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If everyone is in a tizz in London talking about getting people out of the region, it's irrelevant to the crisis we have here.

[ image: The flood across the border out of Kosovo continues]
The flood across the border out of Kosovo continues
"What we have got to get is much more urgency, to get the refugees over the border and cared for, and better organised care for refugees.

"I'm here in Macedonia and there are thousands and thousands of people on the other side of the border, not being fed, babies being born, people becoming sick."

The opposition to Nato countries accepting refugees was echoed by the European Union's human rights commissioner Emma Bonino.

"We should not participate in ethnic cleansing," she said.

"People have been deported from their home, from their country - and we are the third deportation."

She backed the idea of building a refugee sanctuary within Macedonia or Albania.

Operational problems, such as a lack of air space because of the large number of military and aid flights, posed serious obstacles, she added.

Straw: "No discussion about exact numbers"
But UK Home Secretary Jack Straw defended accepting some refugees, while refusing to provide a number.

"There will be an upper limit, but I'm not going to get into discussion about precise numbers," he said.

Those brought to the United Kingdom would go back to Kosovo when it became safe to do so, he said, although the offer of temporary protection would not detract from an individual's right to claim permanent protection.

"We should not act in a way that rewards Milosevic," Mr Straw said.

"What would suit him is for them to be dispersed to the four quarters of the earth."

[ image: Overnight strikes hit Serb forces again]
Overnight strikes hit Serb forces again
He stressed Britain had previously accepted large numbers of refugees.

"We've already taken 10,000 over previous months - a larger amount than any other EU country except Germany."

But he maintained his stance did not contradict that of the international development secretary.

"It's wrong to assume this is somehow some alternative to dealing with the here and now problem on the ground in Albania. That's the critical issue."

The refugee airlift won the backing of Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, who last week became the only British politician to publicly oppose the Nato bombing.

He said there was "an inescapable moral obligation" for Nato powers to take Kosovan refugees.

"We're witnessing a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions," he said.

Germany has already announced it will take 40,000 refugees, while both the United States and Turkey will accept 20,000.

The last time Britain took in large number of refugees was during the Bosnian conflict, when 5,000 people were housed in reception centres in areas such as the Midlands, Derby and West Yorkshire for three months.

They were then moved to more permanent accommodation and were given permission by the government to stay permanently in 1997.

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