Britain accused of secret scheme to create asylum camps in the Balkans

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The Independent Online

British proposals to create Balkan asylum camps have come under sharp attack in Albania where local media have accused the Foreign Office of developing secret plans for a facility near the border with Kosovo.

Britain's ambassador to Albania, David Landsman, visited Kukes, a remote mountain town, last week to inspect potential facilities, according to a television news report on the widely watched Top Channel.

The UK Government has controversial plans to cut the number of applications for asylum in Britain by 50 per cent by the end of the summer using holding centres outside the rim of the European Union to deter bogus claimants.

Albania's two main daily newspapers, Shequelli and Corriere, claimed that British authorities want to refurbish derelict camps left over from the refugee crisis that followed Nato's bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999.

When contacted by The Independent, Mr Landsman denied the existence of any plans for Kukes or any other site in the country. "There is no specific Albanian element to this story," he said. Diplomats confirmed Albania is among a list of possible locations for a pilot scheme but said no official discussions had taken place with the Albanian government and no proposal was likely to be made soon.

Large sections of the local media remain unconvinced by British denials and attacked any potential proposals as insulting and unhelpful.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, first floated the Government's proposals at a press conference in February at which he announced numbers of asylum applications had hit a record 111,000 in 2002.

The idea was for "transit processing centres" in countries bordering the EU, such as Albania, Croatia and Ukraine, where refugees' claims would be scrutinised before they are allowed to return to Britain. Since then, the proposal has all but collapsed.

Despite the backing of several EU nations, they have also run into implacable opposition from Germany and Sweden. Amnesty International denounced the plans for "prison-like" camps as "morally flawed, legally dubious and close to unworkable".

Ahead of the EU leaders' summit in Greece today, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, this week admitted the idea of transit camps just outside the EU were "not being actively considered ... at the moment".

More promising are the Government's plans to create "regional protection centres" in such areas as Iran, Somalia, Turkey and areas of the Third World where many refugees originate. This has won more widespread support with ministers in talks with other EU nations and the UNHCR over their practicality.

But Margaret Lally, acting chief executive of the Refugee Council, siad that the West must address the problems that cause people to flee their homes in the first place.

"We should not be passing our responsibility over to some of the poorest countries in the world, which are already supporting the majority of the world's refugees," she said.