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Friday, April 23, 1999 Published at 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK

UK Politics

Straw defends Kosovo refugee policy

The flood of refugees has created an aid crisis

Home Secretary Jack Straw has defended the government's policy on Kosovo refugees following claims that the UK is not taking enough evacuees.

Kosovo: Special Report
The first Kosovo refugees to enter the UK under the United Nations' humanitarian evacuation plans are expected within days.

A group of about 140 women, children, elderly people and refugees in need of medical care will be airlifted from the Macedonian border on Sunday or even Saturday.

[ image: Paddy Ashdown has just returned from a fact-finding trip to the Balkans]
Paddy Ashdown has just returned from a fact-finding trip to the Balkans
The group - fewer than the 250 originally expected - are scheduled to be flown to Leeds-Bradford airport on a chartered Macedonian Airlines plane.

They will be welcomed at reception centres run by the Refugee Council before being placed in more permanent accommodation.

All refugees will be allowed to claim benefits and will be entitled to work while they are in the UK.

Ann Clwyd: We should make it clear that they can choose Britain if they want to
A Home Office spokeswoman said they would all be given 12 months exceptional leave to remain, and could apply for refugee status.

They will also have full access to NHS medical care, and children of school age will be sent to a local school.

UK criticised

Earlier, Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown said the UK must take in its fair share of refugees in order to help prevent Macedonia from being plunged into chaos.

Mr Ashdown, who has just returned from the Balkans, said the "very new and highly fragile" state "doesn't need a lecture on refugees...when Britain has been very laggardly indeed in its approach".

He pointed out that Germany had already taken 10,000 refugees.

Jack Straw: Nothing would please Milosevic more than a massive evacuation from that region
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Friday it would be making a request in the next few days for another 400 refugees to be given sanctuary in the UK.

Ministers have said that Britain is prepared to take "some thousands" evacuees.

However, Labour MP Ann Clwyd says she is concerned that the UK is not ready to take in enough, and is discouraging them from coming to the country.

Germany unhappy

Ms Clwyd, who has also been to see conditions in Macedonia, said: "When I was in the camps last week I was worried to hear refugees in two camps say that they didn't believe Britain wanted them.

"I would like to see the government make it clear that it is enthusiastically welcoming the refugees and not in the small numbers announced so far."

Some reports have also suggested that Germany is unhappy with the UK's attitude.

Brits in Balkans
But Mr Straw insisted that the government was following the policy agreed by the European Union.

"We have made it clear right from the start that the overwhelming focus of humanitarian relief has to be in the region around Kosovo, in Albania and Macedonia," he said.

"We have said that we will take some thousands of refugees from the area. We have already taken 10,000 before the war started.

"We have laid in extensive contingency plans, we have said we will respond to UNHCR requests whenever they were made.

'Aid must be focused in region'

"On the very day they made their first request we responded positively and we will continue to do so."

But Mr Straw stressed that the refugee problem had to be resolved in the Balkans.

[ image: Mr Straw says refugees from Kosovo want to return home]
Mr Straw says refugees from Kosovo want to return home
"Nothing would please Milosevic more than if there was a massive evacuation from that region of Kosovan Albanians because that would then mean that he had been successful in his policy of ethnic cleansing, whatever else thereafter happened".

He also insisted that the UK's actions were in line with what the refugees wanted.

"What they say time and time again is that they want to go back to Kosovo," he said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has also underscored Nato's commitment to helping the refugees rebuild their lives in Kosovo.

Mr Blair, in the US for the summit marking the alliance's 50th anniversary, called for a massive aid package to help rebuild the Balkans once the crisis in Kosovo has been resolved.

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