Go back, Straw tells Kosovo asylum-seekers

SPECIAL RIGHTS for Kosovo Albanians seeking asylum in Britain are to be scrapped from today because of the improving situation in the former war zone, the Home Secretary said yesterday. Jack Straw said ethnic Albanians were no longer at risk of persecution from Serb authorities in the region overseen by the UN's K-For operation.

He said special treatment for Kosovo Albanians was to be ended and the refugees already in Britain would be encouraged to return home.

Under emergency provisions introduced when war flared in the region earlier this year, Kosovo Albanians coming to the UK were automatically granted one year's exceptional leave to remain.

Now every application would be considered on its merits, as with other nationalities. The Home Office officials said they "anticipated" that most would be rejected. Special provisions allowing relatives of people who had sought sanctuary here to join them in Britain were also being ended.

At the same time Mr Straw stepped up efforts to encourage refugees remaining in this country to return. A new provision will allow heads of households to visit Kosovo to investigate the local position was and to check what remains of their home and possessions in preparation for their family's return. They would be allowed to come back to Britain, but only within their one-year time limit. The flights will be paid for by the Government.

So far, 809 of the 4,346 Kosovo Albanians who came to the United Kingdom under the United Nations High Commission for Refugees' evacuation programme and 55 who made their own way here have used a voluntary repatriation scheme to go home.

A further 1,000 asylum- seekers claiming to come from Kosovo arrived under their own steam in July. Figures are not yet available for last month.

Mr Straw said the "explore and prepare" visits were being offered in other European countries. He added: "Ethnic Albanians are now generally safe from persecution in Kosovo and this is reflected in the new guidance to immigration officers which comes into force today.

"But we recognise the genuine concern many families have about their own par- ticular circumstances in Kosovo and what they will be returning to."

All Kosovo Albanians granted one year's leave to remain were allowed to apply for refugee status as well. The Home Office said all asylum applications from citizens of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which were put on hold in early June, would now be reactivated.

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