War in Europe: Blair faces criticism of UK refugee policy

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR, who is planning to travel to the Balkans this week faces widespread international criticism of Britain's reluctance to accept refugees from the Kosovo crisis.

The Government faces accusations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and aid agencies that it has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis by dragging its feet over airlifting ethnic Albanians .

The UNHCR is privately angry that Britain has so far accepted only 330 of the 640,000 refugees who have poured out of Kosovo in recent weeks. Germany has taken almost 10,000, Turkey 5,665 and France nearly 2,000. "We've got a problem with the Brits at the moment - they just don't want these people," one senior official said.

The Home Office is sending a team of officials to Macedonia this week to help register refugees in an attempt to head off the growing frustration on the ground. They will work with the UNHCR to identify people who could be brought to Britain.

However, Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner, yesterday appealed to Britain to increase its intake of refugees in order to relieve the pressure on Macedonia and Albania, which have been overwhelmed.

"We hope very much that there will be more accelerated departures to the United Kingdom," she told the BBC. "In the past two to three days the outflow has increased enormously so that existing facilities are being very, very stretched." There is frustration that Britain has refused to say exactly how many refugees it will accept.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has promised to take "some thousands" of Kosovar refugees - although ministers have consistently stressed that they believe it is better for displaced people to be housed in the region to make it easier for them to return to their homes. Home Office sources said yesterday that the Government was still waiting for a formal request.

But insiders at the UNHCR detect a marked difference between the public compassion of British ministers and their private reluctance to take their share of the burden. Unlike other countries, including Germany, Canada, America and Australia, the UK has not until now sent representatives to help process the applications of refugees.

Refugees in Macedonia said yesterday that they had been told by UNHCR volunteers that the British Government does not want them. UNHCR volunteers, registering people at the 30,000-strong Stenkovec 1 camp in Macedonia, said they had been led to believe that Britain was not an option.

The UK is not included on the printed form listing the countries available to refugees because it did not promise to accept its quota when the crisis first broke out. "There is a space below in which they can put any country," said one volunteer. "Officially, we tell them they can put England but we tell them not to bother. The UK only wants special cases."

In response to criticism that Britain had accepted only 330 refugees, Overseas Development Minister Clare Short told the House of Commons on Thursday: "It's not the case that Britain is not accepting them. Most people don't want to come here."

The truth is that the refugees are being told Britain does not want them. The Independent on Sunday asked dozens of refugees if they would like to go to the UK; almost all said yes. We put down a piece of paper asking all those at the UNHCR registration centre to sign if they wanted to be airlifted to the UK - and it was filled in less than 10 minutes.

The refugees were told it was simply a journalistic exercise, but the most disturbing aspect was the fact that the first people to sign were the agency's volunteers themselves. Wearing UNHCR caps and vests, the volunteers, mostly Kosovar students, said they had been led to believe that Britain was simply not an option - so many who had wanted to go to Britain settled for a different destination.

As each refugee registers, a form is filled in stating possible temporary destinations. Host countries listed are Albania, Austria, Germany, Israel, Norway, Poland, Turkey and Sweden. Britain is not on the list.

When volunteers and people queuing in the registration tent were told of Ms Short's words, they all said they intended to apply to be evacuated to Britain.

In the tent of the International Organisation for Migration, volunteers also believe Britain is reluctant to take refugees: "We have had contact from many countries so far, but we haven't heard a thing from Britain."

Macedonia is now host to 173,000 Kosovar refugees, a figure increasing by 5,000 daily. But fewer than 1,000 a day are being flown to other countries.

"This is intolerable, inhuman," said Dr Thei Haumann, a paediatrician with Medecins sans Frontieres at Stenkovec. "There are three times the number here that the sanitation facilities can take. We are seeing 700 people a day with chronic problems, hypertension, stress... We have to get these people out of here. This is disastrous for them."