Most Kosovo refugees opt to stay in UK

NEARLY ALL the Kosovo refugees living in Britain have chosen to remain in this country for the winter despite the end of the conflict.

Fewer than 400 of the estimated 24,000 Kosovars in Britain have so far registered to go back to their homeland under the official programme.

Most are said to be concerned at the continued instability in Kosovo, the dangers posed by mines and the damage caused to their homes during the conflict earlier this year.

Some members of the first batch of 150 returners arrived in the former Yugoslavian province ten days ago to find their houses had been destroyed and they had nowhere to live.

The Refugee Council said last night that many of the British-based refugees were nervous about signing up to the return programme because they have been told that they cannot come back if they feel unsafe or unhappy with conditions at home.

The Home Office is now planning an "Explore and Prepare" programme that allows heads of families to return home and assess living conditions while the rest of the family remains in Britain.

Tomorrow, 129 returners will fly directly to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, a journey of less than four hours. Those on the previous flight endured an exhausting 12-hour journey, which included a long bus ride from Skopje in Macedonia, because until this week the Pristina airport was reserved for military aircraft.

The International Migration Organisation (IMO), which is overseeing the programme, said it was delighted that humanitarian flights could now land at the capital. Civilians are still not allowed to go to the airport and the refugees returning from Britain have been instructed to tell relatives and friends not to try to meet them.

Diane Grammer, head of the IMO's UK and Ireland office, said conditions in Kosovo remained "quite dangerous", but that most Kosovars in Britain intended to return eventually.

She said: "It's not to say that everyone would choose to go back but we would think that by next spring a lot of people would be thinking about going back, particularly if the country remains stable."

Some 4,500 refugees were flown to Britain in the official humanitarian programme and housed in public buildings. Up to 20,000 others came separately as asylum-seekers after making their own way here.