Straw ready to force Kosovars back home

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The Independent Online

The Government is bracing itself for fresh problems over asylum as it prepares to send 3,000 Kosovan refugees back to the Balkans in the next three months.

The Government is bracing itself for fresh problems over asylum as it prepares to send 3,000 Kosovan refugees back to the Balkans in the next three months.

Only 1,000 of the 4,000 Albanians who fled to Britain during last year's conflict in Kosovo have returned voluntarily to their homeland. They were given "exceptional leave to remain" for a year - periods which run out between 25 April and the end of June.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said yesterday that the Albanian refugees would be sent back to the Balkans if they sought to remain in Britain. "Enforcement action will be taken in due course against those who are not willing to go back voluntarily," he said. "We are encouraging them to go back voluntarily. A lot of work is going on to achieve that."

At the same time, the Home Office expects large numbers of white people from Zimbabwe to enter Britain as they flee the growing crisis in their country - which could provide an uncomfortable contrast to the eviction of the Albanians. Between 40 and 50 people from Zimbabwe came to Britain last month and officials expect a "significant increase" as the attacks on white farmers by black war veterans continue. Many of the whites from Zimbabwe are expected to have the right to remain in Britain under our immigration laws.

Mr Straw sought to cool the intense political row over asylum when he made clear he intended not to describe those with no claim to stay in Britain as "bogus" asylum-seekers. "If people feel that language is getting in the way, it is a good idea to move on," he said. Mr Straw, who referred to some applications as "abusive", denied the softening of the Government's language had been ordered by Downing Street.

The Home Secretary intends to hold talks shortly with Bill Morris, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, over his criticisms of the Government's record on asylum and immigration. Mr Straw spoke to Mr Morris over the telephone last Thursday after discovering that the TGWU had written an article in Friday's edition of The Independent accusing him of "giving life to the racists".

Yesterday Mr Straw rejected Mr Morris's claim that supermarkets would profit from the new voucher system which has replaced social security cash benefits. He denied the scheme would mean asylum-seekers overpaying for their shopping because the vouchers were being issued in denominations of £5, £1 and 50p.

But Mr Straw rejected Tory claims that Britain was a "soft touch" for asylum-seekers. He said the Government planned to create more places at detention centres and see more asylum-seekers removed from this country. "We are tightening the system against those who have no claim for asylum," he said. "Those who do, we welcome, and we have a good record of that."

William Hague, the Tory leader, who last week rejected Downing Street's call for politicians to cool the heated debate on asylum, will speak out again tonight when he calls for "common sense on asylum-seekers" in a speech to the Social Market Foundation.