Yugoslavians pay high price for sanctuary: Jason Bennetto reports on the pressures and difficulties faced by a growing number of refugees fleeing the war in their homeland

Click to follow
The Independent Online
GORAN POTREBIC, 31, slipped a pair of shoelaces around his neck, tied them to a railing in a wardrobe and hanged himself in May this year. Several days earlier, Slavoljub Barudzic, 25, a student, was found hanged behind Latimer Road station in west London.

Both were Yugoslavian men terrified of having to return to their homeland during the war. They are extreme examples of the pressures and difficulties facing the growing number of Yugoslavian refugees entering Britain. As well as coping with a strange culture and language, many refugees are being exploited by employers and landlords who realise that they can get cheap, unlawful labour and easy money.

In the past 10 months more than 1,300 Yugoslavians have applied for asylum and about 40 arrive in the United Kingdom each week. One of the latest to seek asylum was Andi Ducka, 16, a Serbian who hitch-hiked across Europe and arrived in Tyneside after stowing away on a ferry from Norway. Only in very unusual cases are applications from Yugoslavians likely to be rejected, the Home Office says. Applicants are immediately entitled to income support and housing benefit. They have to wait six months before they can work legally.

Vladmir (not his real name) was illegally working for pounds 1.50 an hour in a kitchen when boiling oil spilled over his hands. He said it was his boss's fault but was sacked.

Manda Jovanovic, manageress at a bed and breakfast hotel, which also runs a Serbian Chetniks club in west London, said: 'We hear . . . of people being exploited or cheated. It's especially hard for some of the young ones who have lost their homes and now spend most of their time wandering around the streets in a foreign country.'

Nine months ago, Maria (not her real name) came with her boyfriend to London as a tourist. Both are Croats from Zagreb. They applied for asylum three months ago and receive about pounds 30 a week each, plus housing benefit for their rented room. They have been working part-time illegally, doing jobs such as washing-up and building, for which they get paid between pounds 1.50 and pounds 2 an hour.

'Conditions and safety are appalling,' Maria said. 'We feel disappointed with some of the terrible conditions, but it's better than living in the middle of a war.'

As well as the refugee support groups that help new arrivals, the existing Yugoslavian community, which came to Britain after the First World War, is also providing aid. Fr Milun Kostic, parish priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, in Lancaster Road, west London, said: 'Usually they don't have rights to work but find something, somewhere. Most are fleeing the war. Some of them have just come as tourists and say they are fleeing the war, others are fleeing military service.' About 10 new people approach the church each week.

Another group profiteering from the Yugoslavians' plight is the growing band of bogus beggars claiming to be refugees. The refugee support groups and magistrates' courts have reported a surge in the number of people begging for money by pretending to be fleeing Yugoslavians.

Earlier this month, at Malborough Street magistrates' court in London, Bosanka Hamzi was fined pounds 50 and pounds 25 costs after the magistrate decided that she was part of an organised gang from Paris posing as Yugoslavian war widows and begging on the streets.

Support groups say that it is extremely difficult to identify which beggars are genuine refugees. Growing numbers have been seen asking for money in and around Underground stations. A typical example was a girl, aged about 16, who was carrying a sign recently saying: 'I am a refugee from Yugoslavia. My mother and father are dead. I have nothing.' She moved from carriage to carriage with one hand out and one arm in a sling. Her face was dirty and her clothes ripped and grubby. When asked whether she spoke English she shook her head. About one in three people in the carriage gave her money.