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Tuesday, April 6, 1999 Published at 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK

UK Politics

Indecision over refugee strategy

Hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes

As the crisis worsens around the borders of Kosovo, the government appears to be undecided on how to do the best thing to help the refugees.

For days the world has been horrified by images of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing or being forced from their homes.

Reports from Macedonia and Albania where the refugees have clustered are portraits of death, disease and malnutrition.

But, as the numbers escalate, it seems the government has been plunged into a quandary about how to help the thousands suffering on the Kosovo borders.

Mixed messages

Kosovo: Special Report
At the weekend, Prime Minister Tony Blair dismissed a policy of airlifting refugees to the UK, attacking a similar policy during the Bosnian conflict.

Then, Mr Blair said Britain would be welcoming refugees.

This was despite the fact the prime minister on Monday said such a policy would be playing into Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's hands.

Although the UK was ready to do whatever it could to help ease the situation at the borders, he said, the ultimate aim was to allow the refugees to be able to return to their homes.

That is mirrored by a three-point plan outlined by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

Mr Cook wants to see the refugee crisis helped by a scheme which will see safe havens created at first, followed by an interim phase where some refugees may have to travel to Western Europe and the US.

The third phase would be the eventual return of the refugees to their homes in Kosovo.

[ image: Clare Short:
Clare Short: "UK should not be part of ethnic cleansing"
But International Development Secretary Clare Short, speaking in Macedonia, concurred that any plans to move refugees out of the immediate area would be doing exactly what President Milosevic wanted.

The UK should not be a party to ethnic cleansing, she said.

Ms Short said: "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.

"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."

Figures remain uncertain

Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is responsible for immigration, has cautiously welcomed any plans for bringing refugees to Britain.

He echoed sentiments that the main aim was for Kosovan refugees to be able to return home.

Yet, with Nato countries including the UK agreeing to take refugees, it is only a matter of time before victims of Serbian ethnic cleansing arrive in the UK.

Turkey has already accepted the first of the thousands of refugees which will be airlifted out of the region.

But while countries such as the US have announced how many refugees they will take, the UK has not said how many it will accommodate.

It is Mr Straw who is expected to announce any plans to airlift refugees to the UK.

The Guardian newspaper suggests Mr Straw favours the gradual introduction of refugees over weeks and months.

They would be given "temporary protection status" allowing them to enter the UK without visas but will be expected to return to their home area once the crisis is over.

The refugees would also be able to apply for benefits and seek work.

Omagh to welcome refugees

There is much speculation about where the refugees will be housed when they arrive.

It is thought many of the refugees will be located in London and south east where they can receive support from their own communities.

There are already an estimated 10,000 other Kosovan Albanians in the UK.

[ image: Jack Straw has not announced how many refugees could come to the UK]
Jack Straw has not announced how many refugees could come to the UK
The Daily Mail suggests Stanford Hill open prison in Kent could be used to house up to 600 refugees. They would sleep in cells as well as halls and corridors.

There has also been speculation refugees could be housed in empty council accommodation, empty schools, hospitals or disused army barracks.

The cost, which could be up to £300m, would be met from emergency government funds.

A national agency will try to spread the burden of responsibility across the UK.

The Kosova Information Centre in London will be among those organisations liasing with the government to make sure the refugees receive the best help possible.

Further afield, the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, where 29 people died last year in the province's worst atrocity, is poised to help up to 20 refugees.

The proposal to offer help to Kosovan families has been greeted with cross-party support.

That should encourage the government, that whatever plans it has to pursue to help the ethnic Albanian refugees, it will have the backing of those horrified by events in eastern Europe.

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Relevant Stories

06 Apr 99†|†UK Politics
Kosovo strategy questioned

06 Apr 99†|†Europe
Respite for some refugees

05 Apr 99†|†Europe
Kosovo aid frustrated by delays

05 Apr 99†|†UK Politics
Blair promises to help refugees

05 Apr 99†|†UK Politics
Short attacks refugee plans

Internet Links

Ministry of Defence - Kosovo

Department for International Development

Home Office

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


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