War in the Balkans: Housing - A planeload of refugees for each local authority

Ian Burrell
Wednesday 05 May 1999 23:02

REFUGEES FROM Kosovo are to be housed in clusters of "one plane- load per local authority" in order to spread the burden of care evenly across Britain.

A fresh appeal will be made next week to every local authority to locate suitable buildings in which to place refugees. So far Britain has accepted only 330 Kosovar refugees, far fewer than its main European partners. Germany has taken more than 10,000.

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said that within two weeks, 1,000 refugees would be arriving each week but yesterday the Home Office said this would not become effective for a month.

The Local Government Association, which is co-ordinating the relief effort and had been taken off guard by Mr Straw's statement, said it was relieved by the new timetable.

"If this does not work there will be egg not just on our faces but on the Government's too," said an LGA spokeswoman.

The LGA is working with the Refugee Council which would like the refugees spread in even clusters of 160, or "one plane-load per authority". The LGA hopes to have accommodation for up to 20,000 refugees, which would mean offers of housing from 125 councils.

As the numbers increase, refugees may be bused from camps in Macedonia to Thessaloniki in Greece, from where they can be flown to Britain.

In the House of Commons yesterday, Mr Straw admitted that as numbers increased "refugees may need to be housed, for a while at least, in former service accommodation".

The 330 evacuees, who arrived in Britain 12 days ago,have been settled in former nursing homes and schools in Leeds, Leicester and Derbyshire. The next batch, of around 300, is due to arrive in Scotland on Sunday.

Many other authorities have volunteered suitable buildings as reception centres and 3,500 places have been identified. Oldham and Trafford in Greater Manchester will receive more refugees next week.

The LGA is anxious to avoid using army camps or disused prisons and is looking for former schools, nursing homes, children's homes and housing association property.

The preparation of each reception centre is a big operation. The Leeds response required the combined effort of 11 agencies, from West Yorkshire Police to the Salvation Army. Each centre requires the support of social workers, counsellors, nurses, teachers and translators.

In Sheffield yesterday, council workers and volunteers were transforming a disused boarding school into a "home from home" for 80 refugees.

Lindsay McLaren, spokeswoman for Sheffield council, said Albanian interpreters had been hard to find but the authority had been "overwhelmed" by public offers to help the refugees.

Clothes donated by local people were being pressed and hung on rails so as "not to look like cast-offs". Brightly-coloured curtains and bedding were being used to dispel the dormitory atmosphere of the school's 63 bedrooms.

For their first few days in Britain, refugees will be cared for by staff trained in helping people with trauma.

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the Kosovars will need opportunities to work and study. "Sitting around all day is not necessarily the best way to grieve," he said.

The refugees are being granted one year's exceptional leave to remain in Britain, allowing them to take up jobs and claim benefits.

The British public has been supportive of the first evacuees. A small crowd gathered at Leeds airport to meet the first flight, carrying a banner reading "Welcome Kosovans".

Mr Hardwick said it was important that such public sympathy was extended to the refugees who come to Britain from other conflicts, often receiving a less enthusiastic reception.

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