Kosovo refugees swell number of asylum-seekers to new record

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The Independent Online
THE BREAK-UP of former Yugoslavian states and the conflict in Kosovo have pushed the numbers of refugees trying to enter Britain to record levels.

According to the Home Office, in the first six months of this year the number of asylum seekers rose by 20 per cent as thousands of ethnic Albanians continued to flee to safety elsewhere in Europe.

While some of the refugees arrive at airports to claim asylum, an increasing number are making covert attempts to enter Britain. Recent weeks have seen a growing number of illegal entries with refugees prepared to make dangerous long-haul trips concealed in lorries to reach Britain.

Among those arriving are children, sent alone by desperate parents to travel across Europe. To date some 519 unaccompanied youngsters from former Yugoslavian states have arrived seeking asylum - almost half the total arriving in Britain.

The crisis has prompted calls for urgent government action from the Refugee Council, supported by the Association of London Governments. London, according to the ALG, will soon be unable to cope with any more asylum seekers unless the Home Office steps in with extra cash and housing.

The latest figures reveal the extent of the problem faced by immigration officials: sheer weight of numbers. The monthly average for asylum application up to July this year has risen by 20 per cent from 2,708 to 3,249.

A total of 18,520 people have so far sought asylum in Britain in the first six months compared with 32,495 for the whole of last year. Refugees from the former Yugoslavia are the largest component, accounting for 13 per cent of new applications. Somalia still continues to be a major source of refugees with some 1,680 seeking asylum during this period, followed by Sri Lanka from which 1,675 have fled.

Home Secretary Jack Straw is giving "urgent consideration" to the request for help and officials have been told to devise workable solutions to deal with the "Kosovan blip".

It is unlikely that any drastic measures will be announced to combat the "blip", according to one Home Office source, since the Government is confident its recent White Paper on streamlining immigration will prove an effective solution to the growing numbers of asylum seekers.

However, all the evidence points to the influx increasing, with asylum seekers flooding in from Eastern Europe and Africa. The number of Czech and Slovakian gypsies coming into Britain has increased dramatically in the past few months. Latest Home Office figures show that 476 entered the country between 1 August and 24 August, most through London's Heathrow Airport.

The total of 851 asylum seekers from the two countries so far this year compares with only 450 in 1997.

A Home Office spokesman said the immigration service is "coping very well at the moment" with the hundreds of arrivals. He said: "This is a massive increase. We can't say what is happening or what is coming until people come off the plane. It's a case of dealing with it on a day-to- day basis. I understand the general claim is that they are fleeing from attacks by skinheads in their own countries. They don't need visas to enter this country so the airlines are obliged to carry them."

It will add to the burden on London's already stretched resources. The Association of London Governments said many boroughs had run out of resources to look after refugees. ALG chair Toby Harris said: "There is simply insufficient accommodation to house the Kosovars safely. It appears likely that many more will want to come from Kosovo, Albania or the camps in Italy. An emergency meeting could be helpful in enabling all concerned to manage the current crisis."

At the moment some 11,300 single adults, 12,600 family members and 1,000 unaccompanied children are being housed in London as refugees.

Last night the Refugee Council said the situation would get worse unless the Home Office dealt with its backlog of at least 20,000 asylum claims. "They are too inefficient and the number of appeals is growing," said a spokeswoman. "The Home Office fosters a culture of disbelief which manifests itself in wrong decisions that necessitate a lengthy appeals process to resolve. This only adds to the problem and leaves people in a state of limbo for anything up to five years."


FADIL ALIJA carries with him everywhere a small book with photographs of his homeland Kosovo. But there are no scenic landscapes of his Balkan home, no happy holiday snaps and no family gatherings, writes Gary Finn.

The only line-ups are rows of dead bodies, the mutilated carcasses of pregnant women and a family of 24 Kosovars shot and crushed by Serbs and their armoured vehicles. They had hidden in their basement because Serbian tanks were driving through houses. It hadn't worked.

"You know, they call us economic migrants. They say we are only coming here to take money from the state because we are poor but it's not true. My family was wealthy. We had a number of houses. We ran schools. We had a good life. We didn't need to live anywhere else."

Nods of recognition greet this 23-year-old's words as his story unfolds in a health centre in London's East End. It is here, as it always has been in the past, that the latest wave of immigrants are trying to make their home. Fadil has been here for five years.

The troubles in Kosovo stem back long before the TV cameras found a new tea-time shock topic. He was still a child when the Serbian police started to pick him up for interrogation and routine beating. They wanted information about his father, an educationalist, whom they thought was plotting an uprising. The Serbs, the minority in Kosovo, regard any gathering of this ethnic Albanian group as a virtual rebellion.

Fadil still has not had a decision on his refugee status from the Home Office and could be returned at any time. But he has used his time well; he speaks excellent English and is studying business and economics.

He tries to help the latest wave of Kosovars who are appearing at ports by the truck-full. Kosovars with $7,000 (pounds 4,400) can engineer freedom via an increasingly well-worked smuggling network that takes them by lorry through Macedonia or Montenegro into Europe.

Sami Topallaj, a student, got out with this wife earlier this year. He had been routinely interrogated, chained for up to 24 hours at a time to a hot radiator and beaten. "My life was threatened so we left," Sami said.

Agim Morina's crime was to report Serb oppression in student newspapers. He was beaten and jailed and escaped as soon as he was free. He said he was sick of seeing friends jailed and killed. "Two of my friends were in the Army but they were murdered. They were sent back to my home town and the Serbs said they committed suicide - but they had been shot in the back. How can you kill yourself like that?"