FOCUS: WAR IN EUROPE: At last, a safe home of sorts

give added urgency to UK efforts to accommodate more refugees
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The Independent Online
Home for many of the 320 refugees from Kosovo landing at Prestwick airport today will be a group of tower blocks in north Glasgow. Painters, removal men and builders worked up to the last minute to ensure the 100 or so flats are ready in time.

But ever since the Government's decision to accept more refugees, deadlines have been incredibly tight. The Local Government Association (LGA) - a link between Westminster and local authorities - held emergency discussions with the Government to ask for more time to prepare. "We had been asked to prepare a programme that would receive refugees gradually, building up to a flight a day," said an LGA spokesperson. "Then the Government said, 'Oh, by the way, there'll be 1,000 in two weeks' time.' We had to say, 'Hold on. It's not numbers but the time factor.'"

The LGA expects 1,000 Kosovars to arrive in the next month and up to 20,000 over the coming months. There will be two more flights next week, each carrying 160 refugees, another the week after, and then a flight every day. The association is working very closely with local councils and the Refugee Council to organise accommodation and support services such as health and counselling. Who will foot the bill for these services has not yet been established. "The Government has promised to pay for setting up reception centres but not for the support facilities. So far the bill's being picked up by local authorities, which is going to be a growing problem," said the LGA representative.

Local housing departments have been thrown into a state of panic, with many councils having to call crisis meetings to discuss how and where they can accommodate hundreds of people at such short notice. Councils in the Midlands, Cheshire, and Lancashire are on call, but London and the South-east are not being considered at the moment, since, says the LGA, they are already home to a substantial number of asylum seekers.

The first 60 refugees, who arrived in Leeds two weeks ago, have settled in a hastily renovated 20-room building. Old people's homes, schools and even open prisons are all being considered as reception centres. After about three months the refugees will be expected to stay with friends and family, or be moved to more permanent housing in the area.

The refugees will have exceptional leave to stay in Britain for a year at least, with rights to work, benefits and health and dental care. They will be exempt from the Immigration and Asylum Bill, expected to become law by November. Once it is on the statute book, asylum seekers will lose rights to welfare benefits and have no choice about where they are housed.

Exactly where to put the refugees can be problematic; only last week there were reports that refugees in Leeds were located near a Serbian church. Local councils also face a struggle to set up support networks in time: the refugees need immediate access to interpreters, social workers, nurseries, educational resources and, most importantly, healthcare. According to an LGA spokesperson: "The refugees who arrived in Leeds were a lot weaker medically than we expected. So we're telling local authorities it's important to work with other people in primary care groups. But all that work takes time."

As soon as they arrive, refugees want to contact family members. According to Jenny Watson, press officer for the Refugee Council, they are desperate to know if any relatives are flying to Britain. "When they first arrived they were confused and frightened," she said. "Now they've settled in. The children are playing and getting on with life. But there is a lot of anxiety about relatives and how to track them down in the UK."

Despite the organisational headache, Ms Watson says the local response has been overwhelming, with people eager to provide clothes and bedding. "People are giving children's clothes, and locals are also organising a Kosovo newsletter which they plan to translate into Albanian."

How long the refugees will be staying here is still unknown. Most will want to return as soon as they can, although Ms Watson predicts: "They'll probably be here longer than they hoped. You can't send people back to nothing."

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