Refugee pledge strains councils

6 May 99
Home Secretary Jack Straw this week committed Britain to accepting 1,000 Kosovar refugees a week and promised local authorities that the government will foot the bill.

07 May 1999

But the Local Government Association has expressed concern that councils' full costs may not be reimbursed.

The sudden about-turn on how many Kosovar refugees would be admitted has caught local authorities on the hop. Straw's announcement on May 4 came in the wake of pressure from Germany – which has just doubled its own offer to 20,000 – and a visit by Prime Minister Tony Blair to Macedonia, where he promised that Britain would accept more refugees.

The Refugee Council will be responsible for initial accommodation and support, with costs underwritten by the government. Unlike asylum seekers, refugees are entitled to income support and housing benefit and, as they become housed by local authorities, the costs will be met by these benefits.

However, an LGA spokeswoman said witnesses of war violence and atrocities, whose families may have been separated, were also likely to need expensive counselling services.

The LGA is unhappy that the government has consistently refused to promise that it will meet these costs and some others, including day care, nursery care and translation services.

However, a Home Office spokeswoman said: 'The government has made it clear it will be picking up the bill. There will be no additional burden on local authorities.'

So far, the government has insisted that those displaced by the Kosovo war should remain in the area so they can easily go home when the conflict ends. Only 330 refugees – people with family already here or with serious medical cases – have been admitted.

Now, up to 10,000 may be expected. 'We were expecting a steady drip of refugees into Britain but Straw has thrown everything into chaos by announcing a big increase with no consultation whatever,' said one local government official.

The LGA and the Refugee Council now have to redouble their efforts to find accommodation in places such as empty council flats and disused hospitals. They may also face local resentment at the sudden marked increase in the numbers expected.

'The arrangements will take time to put in place,' said Mike Boyle, head of the LGA's asylum seekers programme.


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