Kosovo Refugees

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th April 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood 12:00 am, 26th April 1999

What contingency plans he is making for the reception of refugees from Kosovo in the United Kingdom. [80954]

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Like our European Partners, the Government's priority is to ensure that, as far as possible, Kosovo refugees are cared for within in region so that they can return to their homes as soon as it is safe for them to do so.

We have always made it clear that the United Kingdom stands ready to receive some thousands of refugees from the region on criteria agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The priority of the UNHCR is to relieve pressure on the camps in turn, by giving priority to the most vulnerable and those with family links in the United Kingdom.

Under those arrangements, the first arrivals—161 refugees, mainly women and children—came to the United Kingdom yesterday, and are being looked after in the Leeds and Bradford areas.

I am very grateful to the local Members of this House, to all the public authorities and to voluntary organisations in the Leeds and Bradford areas for the great efforts that they have made. I am also extremely grateful to the people of those areas for the welcome they have given the refugees.

In addition, I should like to place on record my special thanks to the Refugee Council, which is taking the lead in establishing a special reception service for all Kosovo refugees arriving in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

Although our paramount duty must be to win the war and to enable all the Kosovo refugees to return to their rightful homes—I am sure it is appropriate that most of them should wish to stay as near to their former homes as possible and to be sustained in neighbouring states—will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that we make orphans and widows, who have suffered so cruelly, a priority? Will he follow the example laid down at the time of Idi Amin's expulsion of the Indians from Uganda and ensure that the refugees are spread evenly around the country? A lot of London boroughs, such as my own, bear a very substantial burden already.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I have said, family union is one of the criteria being followed by the UNHCR and, within that, the vulnerability of orphans and widows is an additional criterion which the UNHCR already takes fully into account.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the Refugee Council, which is a major voluntary organisation with huge experience in this area, is making arrangements to ensure that those who will be arriving are accommodated in areas that are ready to welcome them and have the facilities to do so. We have already made it clear by example that that does not mean only London.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Labour, Bradford South

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his congratulations to the people of Leeds and Bradford, and West Yorkshire as a whole, for their generosity of spirit in accepting the refugees yesterday? Does he agree that it is right and proper that the statutory agencies operate together, as they did yesterday, to accommodate the refugees in a proper manner? It was clear from what the refugees said yesterday that all they want to do is go home.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Let me place on record again my thanks to the local authorities within West Yorkshire, which have done a magnificent job in co-operation with the voluntary organisations. As my hon. Friend said, the agencies are operating extremely well together.

On my hon. Friend's last point, it is true that the refugees want to go back to their homes. That is why it is absolutely right that the major focus of humanitarian relief must be in the region around Kosovo—in Albania and Macedonia—because that meets both the necessary aims of the military action against the Milosevic regime and, more importantly, the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the Kosovo refugees.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the Home Secretary agree that our determination to end the terrible treatment that has prevented those people from remaining in their homes is not a reason to be at all slow in responding to the UNHCR's plea for urgent help and relief from the sheer pressure of numbers around the Kosovo border? Does the Home Secretary have in place machinery that is efficient enough to identify the priorities of, for example, those with medical needs? Does he recall that, when the east African Asian crisis happened, a special refugee board was set up to cope with urgent action? The existence of more voluntary organisations now might call for different arrangements. Can the right hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not think that there is a case for setting up a special refugee board. As the right hon. Gentleman says, things have changed since the period when ldi Amin was expelling all those east African Asians. The depth of voluntary organisation work in this field is very much greater than it was. I am satisfied that the arrangement that we have put in place, with the Refugee Council in the lead but obviously fully supported by my Department and local authorities, will be resilient.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we are responding urgently to pleas from the UNHCR. The answer is yes; the first request that we received from it was last Wednesday 20 April, and we responded positively within one hour.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

Can the Home Secretary confirm the terms on which people are being accepted into this country from Kosovo? I have seen it reported that they are being given one year's exceptional leave to remain, which presumably gives them access to benefits. If that is so, and if we are taking people on the basis of having relatives already here, what is being done to deal with the cases of those who are already here? Is it not anomalous to have people already here but with no access to benefits, whereas their relatives who are now being allowed into the country have access to benefits?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend is entirely correct to say that those who arrive here by way of priority from the UNHCR are being issued exceptional leave to remain for one year, which passports them into benefits and entitles them to work. My hon. Friend will understand that those who come here by other means will, because of their method of arrival and, sadly, questions about their identity—it must be said, however unpalatable it is, that a number of people who come from Albania seek to claim that they are Kosovo Albanians but have no well-founded claim under the 1951 convention—have their claims dealt with by a different process, which necessarily takes longer. However, we have a good record in according refugee status or exceptional leave to remain as quickly as possible to those whom we are clear come from Kosovo and have a well-founded fear of persecution.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

Is the Home Secretary aware that we entirely endorse the action to give help and relief to the 160 refugees who arrived from Kosovo yesterday? We also support the general policy that the overall aim must be that the people of Kosovo can return to their homes. One factual question arises from what has just been asked. Ministers, including the Prime Minister, have been saying that this country has already taken 10,000 refugees from Kosovo. Does that figure include people whose applications are still being considered? If so, how many of those 10,000 are applicants whose cases are currently under consideration?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his general endorsement of our policy. The 10,000 people who have identified themselves as Kosovan include applications that are in the pipeline. I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman as quickly as possible with a breakdown of the figures.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the Home Secretary outline what help he will offer to local authorities, which will take a substantial number of refugees in the near future, for social services, education and housing assistance? We all support and welcome asylum seekers arriving in this country, but does he realise that it is extremely difficult for inner-urban local authorities to fund existing services, and with an increased burden on them they will need immediate help from central Government? They cannot wait until the end of the financial year and include such assistance in next year's round of bids to central Government.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I said in response to the original question from the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), the Refugee Council and the Home Office are being sensitive about the areas in which they are arranging for refugees who are coming in by plane to be received. They are certainly sensitive to the additional pressure faced especially by some inner-London boroughs. Discussions are in hand with local authorities, and I have no reason to believe that they need be hindered by any financial considerations in the co-operation that they wish to offer.