JEAN WOOD reports on the plight of Kosovan refugees sent back from Leeds to their own country and a very uncertain future.
Just over a year ago, Serbian forces – intent on cleansing their region of Albanian people – drove thousands from their homes. Many of the luckier ones, who escaped the shootings, rapes and maimings, spent the winter under canvas suffering indescribable discomfort and degradation. Some were airlifted to England.
On their arrival groups of well-wishers waved “Welcome” banners and thrust gifts into the hands of these bewildered people. There were official welcomes by representatives of the great and the good.
In June this year, as the so-called “voluntary return” flights left Leeds and Bradford Airport, there was none of this. The press were invited onto the first flight and treated to smiling “Goodbye and thank you” photo calls. There was a delegation of important people to wave off the last of them but for the many flights in between there was an air of furtive activity and secrecy. The people were herded up the ramp straight through to Departures. They made a sorry sight as the queue snaked past the “Welcome to Leeds and Bradford Airport” sign at six o’clock in the morning.
Some of the stories of individual family are heartbreaking. Many are currently receiving medical treatment for serious illnesses. There will be none available when they return to Kosovo. They know that many of those who have gone before them are being forced to live in tents while younger family members work on rebuilding homes. So why have they decided to return of their own free will?
Many were on these flights because the alternatives were clearly spelt out to them. “Go now and collect your resettlement grant and we’ll arrange transport for some of your possessions,” they were told. “Or apply to stay at the risk of leaving with nothing and arriving home in winter.”
If they stayed they would have become voucher-wielding asylum seekers with all the degrading conditions that this status confers. If they overstayed they would have been told to expect enforced removal.
All of this has taken place despite a very clear set of guidelines from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A spokesperson for the Home Office has said they are under no obligation to follow these and compounded their culpability by commenting: “No one can say we haven’t been generous to the Kosovans.”
When one group of teachers and other friends wanted to go to the airport to say goodbye, a Refugee Council representative went to speak to their headteacher and made a very clear request that this would not be good for the Kosovans because it would only upset them and they should be allowed to leave with dignity.
The Kosovans arrived in this country after being driven from their homes, unsure what awaited them. Now they are being removed. They return to their country in the full knowledge that the government which is returning them has been told by an all-party committee that the current structures in Kosovo can not support vulnerable people. Put plainly, this means some of them are being sent to their deaths.
Jack Straw and Barbara Roche should look at the true picture behind their paper policies, their numbers games and their pathetic attempts to justify their draconian actions. For too long they have colluded with the Widdecombe approach to human misery. It is time for some truly humane interpretation of the plight of these people and of asylum seekers generally.