War in the Balkans: Housing Arrangements - UK opens old prisons to refugees

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The Independent Online
DISUSED PSYCHIATRIC hospitals, open prisons, army camps, residential schools and hostels will all be commandeered to provide temporary shelter for Kosovar refugees under emergency plans being drawn up by the Home Office.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will meet his European Union counterparts in Luxembourg today to discuss the details of the US-led plan to airlift refugees to Nato countries, and is expected to specify the number that the UK will accept.

Contingency plans have been devised to utilise all government departments and agencies. The Prison Service has offered up to 700 places, while the NHS Estates and Ministry of Defence have offered "several thousand" beds. A confidential circular, marked "Urgent and Immediate", was sent to all 410 councils in England and Wales yesterday in an attempt to find vacant property. The memo makes it clear that former residential schools should be offered as reception centres for the refugees, but "any options" could be used.

Councils are also asked to locate accommodation that can be used for the "medium term", after the initial reception stage.

The Refugee Council will work with the Home Office's Race Relations Unit to co-ordinate an accommodation programme similar to that conducted for 3,000 Bosnianrefugees in the mid-Nineties. Indeed, the Bosnian scheme, which granted refugees "temporary protection status", is being used as a template for the current plans. Crucially, the scheme was funded directly by the Government rather than local councils and the Home Office confirmed yesterday this would apply to the Kosovars. "The whole issue is a cross- government concern. Any extra money will come from central government. We consider this an emergency situation," a spokeswoman said.

The Prison Service has offered to transfer inmates to house 600-700 refugees at Stanford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. The jail offers dormitory accommodation, officially for 384 people.

An extra 3,000 spaces have become available in open prisons throughout England and Wales because inmates have been fitted with electronic monitoring tags and sent home.

However, the Refugee Council said last night it disliked the use of army camps and prisons, though it may accept that they be used as transit centres.

The 9,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees currently in the UK are cared for by local councils, which arrange housing and food parcels or tokens. The law prevents asylum seekers receiving cash benefits, but payments in kind are aimed at providing basic subsistence.

The refugees are dealt with on an ad hoc basis, depending on where they claim asylum. London councils and Kent County Council have borne the financial and social burden of most of the influx to date.

However, some of the boroughs claim they cannot cope with high concentrations of refugees and have made deals with other councils to take them off their hands. Westminster, for example, has arrangements with Liverpool, Hastings and Great Yarmouth.