Kosovo Refugees

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 5th May 1999.

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Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State 3:31 pm, 5th May 1999

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the Government's policy concerning refugees from Kosovo.

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

As I explained to the House at oral questions last week, the Government's priority, along with our European partners, is to ensure that, as far as possible, Kosovan refugees are cared for within the region, so that they can return to their homes as soon as it is safe for them to do so, which is the refugees' overwhelming wish. There has been widespread understanding of the NATO allies' determination not to allow any actions to be taken that might inadvertently facilitate Milosevic's vile and brutal policy of ethnic cleansing.

We have also long made it clear that the United Kingdom stands ready to receive some thousands of refugees from the region on humanitarian grounds and on the basis of criteria agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The priority of the UNHCR is to relieve pressure on the camps, not least in respect of the most vulnerable and those with family links in the United Kingdom.

We received the first request from the UNHCR on 20 April and agreed it within one hour. The first plane of refugees from Kosovo arrived in the UK at Leeds-Bradford airport on Sunday 25 April. There were 161 refugees, mainly women and children, including three cases in need of medical treatment. The second plane of 169 refugees arrived at East Midlands airport on 29 April.

Reception services for the refugees are being organised by the Refugee Council in co-operation with its partner agencies, Refugee Action, the Scottish Refugee Council and the Red Cross. Local authorities, airport authorities, the immigration service and local medical services are also heavily involved.

No upper limit has been set on the number of refugees that we will take. The UNHCR has now asked us to take more refugees because of the changing situation on the ground in Kosovo, and we are responding. A team of Home Office officials will be arriving in Macedonia very shortly to speed up the registration of refugees for potential evacuation.

The next two flights will arrive at Prestwick airport in Ayr on Sunday 9 May. We expect that there will be a further two flights later next week, building up in the following weeks to between five and seven planes a week, leading to a weekly total of around 1,000 refugees.

Local authorities, through their national association, have been fully involved from the start in the planning and development of these arrangements. Their representative was present at a regular meeting last week when contingency plans to increase flights to between five and seven a week were discussed.

The Refugee Council and its partner agencies are working closely with the Home Office and local government associations to identify sites for further reception centres across the United Kingdom. We are looking at all parts of the UK. A variety of different forms of accommodation will be used as temporary reception centres where the refugees can be housed before moving into more settled accommodation. As the numbers increase, the refugees may need to be housed—for a while, at least—in former service accommodation.

I have already made it clear that local authorities and the voluntary sector will be reimbursed the additional costs that they incur in respect of these arrangements.

Those refugees who arrive here by way of priority from the UNHCR are either being granted permission to enter in line with that of close family members already settled in the UK or, where there are no such close family members here already, they are being given exceptional leave to remain for 12 months, to provide for their protection as requested by the UNHCR. Such status provides a "passport" into the normal benefits system and the right to work. Kosovans who arrive in Britain by their own means will continue to be able to apply for asylum in the normal way.

Finally, I pay tribute to the voluntary sector, to the local authorities and to the British public as a whole for their magnificent response so far to those who have arrived, and to the way in which I know that response will continue.

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

Opposition Members entirely share the commitment to give all possible help and relief to refugees from Kosovo. Many of the families involved have suffered appallingly in the past months. In the light of that and the sheer scale of the problem, it is right that we should approach the plight of the refugees in a spirit of generosity.

Given that, I hope that the Home Secretary will give an assurance that he will keep the House fully informed of policy. Today, every newspaper in the country reported that the Government would take 1,000 refugees a week into this country. Whether that is a change of policy or, as one Home Office official called it, "a change of pace," it was, by any standards, a significant development. In my view, it should have been reported first to the House of Commons.

Against that background, let me put some brief points to the Home Secretary. First, we agree that the priority is to ensure that, as far as possible, refugees from Kosovo are cared for within that region. That is what the refugee families want and, of course, they also want to return to their homes as soon as it is safe for them to do so. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to agree that, in the meantime, that means that all possible assistance should be given, in particular to Albania and Macedonia.

Secondly, may I ask the Home Secretary about the total number of refugees that he envisages coming to this country? Several other countries have put a figure on it, but he has stuck to his formula of "some thousands". He has talked, and did so again this afternoon, of a weekly total of around 1,000 refugees arriving a week, but he has given no indication of how long that process will continue. Is there not advantage in giving the agencies involved, and the public generally, some better guide to the numbers envisaged under his policy?

Further to that point, the Home Secretary will have seen in the press the comments of some local authority spokesmen, which are rather contrary to the impression that he has given this afternoon. They are concerned whether facilities are adequate to care properly for the numbers of refugees that could be envisaged. Is the Home Secretary satisfied that there will be adequate resources and, in particular, adequate help for the education authorities for the children involved?

In addition, will the families arriving from Kosovo eventually be subject to the regime of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, when it becomes law? In particular, will local authorities still have a duty under the Children Act 1989 to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children who arrive here?

Perhaps most crucially, will the Home Secretary emphasise that action is being taken entirely on humanitarian grounds? In no way can Milosevic use that action to validate his actions in Kosovo, which the whole nation utterly condemns. Our overriding aim remains that those refugees should be enabled to return to their own homes and live in peace and security.

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

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tenor of his remarks and for his full support for the approach which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government have taken in respect of the priority, which has to be to secure humanitarian relief in the region of Kosovo. As my right hon. Friend said a few moments ago at Prime Minister's questions, let it be clear that the United Kingdom's contribution to the humanitarian relief within that region stands comparison with that of any country in the world.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would keep the House fully informed. Yes, of course I will. I made what turned out to be a full statement at parliamentary questions just a week ago, and I shall continue to keep the House informed. The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the total number of refugees. We thought it wise from the start not to set either a minimum or a maximum limit, because the situation is changing. I believe that our original judgment not to set an upper limit, but instead to say that we stand ready to take some thousands of refugees, was correct because, as we have seen in the past few days, the situation on the ground in Kosovo—and therefore in Macedonia and Albania—is changing all the time.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about local authorities. I am aware of what one particular local authority spokesperson said, but the truth is that local authorities, through the Local Government Association, have been fully involved in these arrangements from the start, as the right hon. Gentleman would expect. One of their representatives was present at a meeting last Friday, when the contingency plans to take between five and seven flights a week were discussed. It is our judgment that the facilities will be sufficient. As I made clear, as the numbers build up, the arrangements for the initial housing of the refugees will have to be in reception centres and perhaps in service accommodation, given the numbers.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the families admitted on UNHCR nomination will be subject to the regime in the Immigration and Asylum Bill when that becomes law. The answer is no, because the regime specified in that Bill is for those who seek asylum status and have no formal leave to remain in this country, other than a pending asylum application. Those who are coming in are being given either leave to enter, consistent with the leave that their close family members have already been given, or exceptional leave to remain. That means that they are automatically passported to social security benefits and to the right to work, and the full obligations of local authorities under the Children Act apply from the start in respect of those children.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I very much welcome the step that my right hon. Friend has taken to admit refugees from Kosovo and to give them exceptional leave to remain. In the next week or two, while we are still discussing the Immigration and Asylum Bill, will he reflect on what the position might be? Those who are given exceptional leave to remain will not necessarily be debarred from applying for asylum. If they then applied for asylum, would they still be entitled to the benefits to which they are currently being given access?

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

They would not be deprived of those benefits because they have a pre-existing right to remain in this country in terms of exceptional leave. 1 can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

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

Is the Home Secretary aware that we share his view, because it is the overwhelming view of the refugees themselves, that the primary objective of the policy should be to create safe conditions for those people to return to their homes, and that everything that we do in the meantime must be consistent with that objective but must meet human need as best we can? In that context, does the Home Secretary not recognise that there was considerable concern that, whereas Germany had taken nearly 10,000 refugees, we had taken only some 300? His statement today will be welcomed.

Can the Home Secretary say whether there is sufficient support from the Home Office for our missions in Tirana and Skopje, which will have to facilitate the movement of refugees? Is he satisfied that the UNHCR will have obtained the necessary information for war crimes tribunals and the return of refugees?

Finally, may I return to a point raised by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)? Will education authorities be reimbursed for all the relevant education expenditure that they may incur for the children of those refugees?

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

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and to his party for their support for the overall approach that we have taken. He asked me a number of questions. He mentioned Germany. It must be acknowledged that refugee flows are never symmetrical. The number of refugees who seek access to any individual country in Europe has a great deal to do with historic and geographical ties. It is a matter of history that there are already 170,000 refugees from Kosovo in the German Republic: that is getting on for a tenth of the total population of Kosovo Albanians. Germany was bound to be able to offer many more refugee places because many of the refugees can stay with members of their family, and because there was great pressure in Germany for that country to receive refugees. I repeat what the Prime Minister said in Prime Minister's questions. We must judge the United Kingdom's contribution to humanitarian relief in this country and in the Kosovo region as a whole, and that stands comparison with any other country in the world. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there is sufficient support for the missions in Skopje and Tirana. I pay tribute to the huge effort of officials from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. However, they can always do with more support, and we are aiming to give them that by way of the Home Office team that is going out to Macedonia shortly.

Every effort is being put into the investigation of war crimes. On the issue of reimbursement of expenditure by local authorities, the details are being worked out at the moment. I said in my statement that the additional costs of local authorities and the voluntary sector would be reimbursed by central Government.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

I am sure that there will be overwhelming support from the British people for the Government's decision to admit refugees in larger numbers than previously. The British people are keen on that idea, and many of them have signified that they want to welcome refugees into their own homes.

What is the status of the 10,000 Kosovo refugees who have already come into this country? How many of them have been given refugee status? If it is a small number, can consideration of the other cases be speeded up? When I was in Albania last week, I was told by our embassy that it was granting no visas for refugees to this country. Will my right hon. Friend look into that matter, because I was also told that refugees seeking visas were being sent to Istanbul? That sounds ridiculous, and there must be an explanation. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would comment on those two points.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. No new decision has been taken to admit larger numbers than have previously been admitted. The original decision that we would take some thousands of refugees was made at the beginning of April. We have merely sought to bring the arrangements consistent with that policy into play.

My hon. Friend asked about the status of the 10,000 or so people who have claimed asylum on the basis that they are from Kosovo and are ethnic Albanians. From recollection—I am happy to write to my hon. Friend—between 3,000 and 4,000 of that 10,000 have been granted either asylum status or exceptional leave to remain, and we are making arrangements to speed up the consideration of the other cases. Consideration of those cases is bound to be more complicated than the granting of exceptional leave to remain to those nominated by the UNHCR. Sadly, although a high proportion of those who claim that they are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and are in need of protection under the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees, a number of others are not, as claimed, from Kosovo but are either Albanians who have no basis of claim under the 1951 convention or come from other parts of the region. We must ensure that the genuine applicants who meet the criteria are separated from those who are either genuine but do not meet the convention criteria or who are abusive and fraudulent applicants.

My hon. Friend expressed concerns about our post in Albania, and I shall certainly follow those up.

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

When I raised this issue on Monday, the Home Secretary said that the United Kingdom stood ready to accept some thousands of refugees. May I point out to him that, before the exodus began, my local authority sent me a communication stating that it was already under refugee pressures that it could not sustain?

While the British people's hospitality is wholly commendable, may I say to the Home Secretary that this crisis was entirely predictable? From the time when the first bomb dropped, a mass exodus was to be expected. I suggested to the right hon. Gentleman that Her Majesty's Government ought to prepare plans on the scale of the dispositions made to receive refugees from Idi Amin's Uganda, but that clearly has not been done. Will he now reassure us that the efflux will be spread around the United Kingdom, and that hard-pressed London boroughs that can already barely cope will not have to bear an excessive burden?

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

I would like to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. He will have noted that planes have landed at Leeds-Bradford and East Midlands airports so far, and that next Sunday, 9 May, planes are due to land at Prestwick.

We are aware of the substantial pressures faced by the hon. Gentleman's borough, by a number of other inner and outer London boroughs and, as it happens, by district councils in the region of Kent, around Dover. It is precisely because of the disproportionate burden that a number of those boroughs are having to bear that we introduced the Immigration and Asylum Bill, so that asylum seekers who enter the country in the normal course of events—they usually do so clandestinely—do not necessarily end up in Dover or the key boroughs, but can be dispersed, not to the four quarters of the earth but to areas where they can be cared for sensibly and properly and where there is much less pressure than London boroughs are currently experiencing.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

I welcome the Government's decision to take refugees, but may I ask the Home Secretary two questions? First, given his suggestion that, if the problem is to be dealt with, it will be necessary to bypass his own legislation, will he look at the legislation again to see why that is the case? Secondly—this involves looking further ahead—are the Government and their partners in NATO committed to resettling the refugees in Kosovo? Has an estimate been made of how long that would take, what it would cost and who would pay? The desire to return home when ethnic cleansing is over will be the first thought in the minds of the refugees here.

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

Let me reassure my right hon. Friend that there is no bypassing of the Immigration and Asylum Bill. The Bill, of which an extensive proportion is concerned with immigration rather than asylum control, concerns people who have sought asylum status in this country under the 1951 convention, but have not been granted it. It has virtually nothing to do with either those who have been granted status under the convention, as refugees, or those who are given exceptional leave to remain in this country. They are automatically passported on to benefits, they have a right to work, and all the obligations imposed on local authorities by the Children Act apply to them.

My right hon. Friend asked whether we were committed to resettling refugees in Kosovo when the war is over. The answer is yes. It is not just because we are committed to that, but because the overwhelming majority of refugees are desperate to return, that the fundamental focus of humanitarian relief must be on the region of Kosovo.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

Can the Home Secretary assure the House that his Department is taking effective screening measures to eliminate criminal elements among the refugee immigrants? His hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development will tell him that I have already raised that in the House, on the Adjournment.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen both the MI6 report and the Interpol papers regarding the Kosovo Liberation Army's drugs and prostitution racketeering, and the general level of intimidation involved in its infiltration of the refugee camps and, in some cases, the refugees themselves? If he and his Department do not get a proper grip, a concomitant load will be thrown on both local authority services and the police in this country.

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

The right hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not disclose which papers from the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service I have seen.

One reason why I said earlier that we must look carefully at each of the claims made by the 10,000 people who enter the country by other means to claim asylum—typically, by clandestine means—is that, while some are genuine and meet the criteria of the 1951 convention, others are abusive claimants who come from Albania rather than Kosovo. As the right hon. Gentleman asks, some of them are criminals. It is obviously important that, so far as possible, we ensure that they are not given any status in this country.

That is why we have to resist those naive clarion calls saying that, without any verification, we should give refugee status to anyone who turns up in this country who claims to be a Kosovo Albanian from Kosovo; we cannot do that. The people who would be most undermined by that are genuine Kosovan refugees. Of that there is no question.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

First, will settlement be organised in clusters, to ensure that there is adequate mutual support for the families involved? Secondly, what counselling arrangements will be available, and from what agencies, for a people who have been through such immense suffering?

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

The arrangement is to ensure that people are settled in clusters. Indeed, that is the settled policy of the Government in respect of overall dispersal of asylum seekers, which we have set out in many consultative documents, and which we published alongside the Immigration and Asylum Bill. Every effort is being made to provide for mutual support, not least from the existing Kosovan population in this country. There is obviously an urgent need, for example, for interpreters.

I revert to the previous question. One of the reasons why we are sending a team of Home Office officials to the region, particularly Macedonia, to assist the UNHCR, is to help to process applicants to ensure that the people who come to this country by plane through the Refugee Council arrangements are those who are most in need.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery Conservative, East Devon

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the problems among the refugees is the number of broken families—and the number of children who have been separated perhaps from both parents and have no knowledge of whether their parents are alive? Does he accept that the International Social Service—with which I have some connection—which has its headquarters in Geneva and branches in Britain and in many European countries, and which specialises in uniting broken families and bringing destitute children back to relatives, should be encouraged to play a part wherever possible? Will he encourage the International Social Service branch in Britain to do all it can to help with that particular problem?

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

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. I can reassure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, who is on the Treasury Bench, take that matter extremely seriously. We have already given £2.5 million to the International Red Cross precisely to assist in family reunion. Moreover, one of the criteria for admission to the UNHCR's lists of those to come to this country is family reunion.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Does the Home Secretary accept that many of us are pleased with the support that the Government are giving to the recent arrivals from Kosovo and, in particular, the immediate reimbursement of local authorities of any extra costs that they have? It is important that they be rapidly paid. The move is extremely welcome.

Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the anomalous position whereby newly arrived refugees from Kosovo will be given exceptional leave to remain—and, therefore, correctly, access to all benefits— while many existing asylum seekers in this country will continue to depend on food vouchers, handouts and little cash, a system that leads to high administrative costs and to very unpleasant experiences for many of those asylum seekers, who feel humiliation in their communities? Will he reflect on the fact that that anomaly will get worse as time goes on? Perhaps now is the time to reflect on the wisdom of that policy in the first place.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his general endorsement of our approach; I shall pocket and treasure it.

There is nothing anomalous in the position of the Kosovan refugees who arrive here by nomination of the UNHCR. There is no doubt about their status. They are known to be refugees, having a well-founded fear of persecution by the state from which they come. There is therefore no question but that we can grant them exceptional leave to remain or other status to allow them to remain here. The problem with those who arrive clandestinely is, as I have explained, where they come from and whether they have a well-founded fear persecution. In many cases they do. Two-thirds of all asylum recognitions in the past month have been in respect of Kosovo, but some do not have a well-founded fear at all; they have made it up. They do not come from the area. We owe it to the House and to genuine Kosovan refugees to discover who they are and whether they have such a right.

I wholly reject my hon. Friend's suggestion about the way in which the benefits in kind will work. Our argument with the previous Government in respect of

benefits for asylum seekers was that they proposed to withdraw any benefit, whether in cash or in kind, from those who claimed asylum within country, and allow benefits only for those who claimed them at port. That would have left people destitute. Local authorities have had to fill that breach and they have done so well. But, as we heard from the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), that has placed substantial pressure on a disproportionate but small number of local authorities, principally in London. Those who have received benefits in kind have in no way gone destitute, however. They have been properly cared for and they will continue to be cared for under our new arrangements.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I am sure that all hon. Members and every United Kingdom citizen are deeply concerned about the plight of the Kosovan refugees and the way in which they have been treated by the Government of Serbia, but would not the Home Secretary think it appropriate to give the House an estimate of the cost of what we are doing? Secondly, does he believe—it may not be politically correct to say so—that all those who will be admitted to this country will willingly return to Kosovo as and when it is appropriate for them to do so? Is it not appropriate for the Government to provide all the aid that is necessary, by way of temporary and mobile housing and all the other forms of aid, to enable Kosovan refugees in Macedonia and Albania to be accommodated temporarily in those countries prior to Kosovo becoming safe again for the people of Kosovo to return to their own country?

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

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an estimate of the total cost immediately because the situation is changing, but as soon as a reasonable and robust estimate of the cost becomes available I shall make it available to the House. I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman of being politically correct. The thought would not pass through my mind. However, I should correct him in one respect. He implied that many of the people coming from the Macedonia area to Britain by way of the new arrangements will want to stay, rather than go back. A few may, but the overwhelming evidence is that the vast majority of refugees from Kosovo are desperate to return to the homes from which they have been driven out by Milosevic's vile policy of ethnic cleansing. I am glad that there is such support across the House for the policy that we have adopted, which is, for all sorts of reasons, including those raised by the hon. Gentleman, to concentrate our humanitarian effort principally in the region, from which the refugees can most easily return to their own homes.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

The Government's policy is entirely consistent with the decency and fairness of the British people who will be glad to welcome a small number of people who have had the most appalling experience. Those sentiments will be shared in Prestwick and in Scotland generally, where the people have the same qualities.

As my right hon. Friend raised the issue of Macedonia and the simple fact that, on all the evidence, the overwhelming majority of refugees want to return to their homeland, will he encourage the appropriate Ministers to ensure a dialogue between the UNHCR and the Government of Macedonia, if only because there seems to be an unseemly desire to move refugees from Macedonia to Albania, which is already overstretched? If it is possible to contribute further resources, it would underline the excellent announcement—made, this very morning, by our own Department for International Development—that we are prepared to provide more funding.

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

I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. We are not only encouraging a dialogue between the UNHCR and the Government of Macedonia, but—as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development tells me—we are facilitating it. Moreover, today, the Prime Minister will be talking about that exact issue with Mrs. Ogata of the UNHCR.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Thank you. We shall now move on, although we shall undoubtedly very soon be returning to this business.