Friday, April 23, 1999 Published at 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK
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.
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.
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.
They will also have full access to NHS medical care, and children of school age will be sent to a local school.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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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