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Kosovo Refugees (Humanitarian Assistance)

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Madam Speaker, with permission I will make a statement on humanitarian assistance for Kosovo refugees. I will set out what we understand the latest position to be, and what our and the international response has been.

First, I want to make one point clear. I reject absolutely suggestions that we should have been prepared in advance for a movement of population on this scale. It would have been an appalling act of complicity in ethnic cleansing to set up in advance a network of camps to await the Albanian population of Kosovo. That would only have assisted Milosevic's objectives. What is now happening is a reflection of unimaginably outrageous behaviour on the part of the Serbian forces. People's anger must be directed at the Serbian aggression, and not the United Nations agencies struggling to cope with the crisis.

Our objective is clear: it is to secure a verified withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo so that the refugees, including those displaced internally, can return to their homes. Meanwhile, I can assure the House that we will do all in our power to support the international effort to provide as quickly as possible shelter and food for those who have been driven over the borders.

As the House knows, there were more than 250,000 internally displaced people within Kosovo, and a further 100,000 in neighbouring countries before NATO intervened, but the situation has deteriorated sharply in recent days.

As people have seen on their television screens, more than 100,000 people--mostly women, children and elderly people--have been driven from their homes. They are very frightened. They are bringing with them stories of gross brutality and killing, which forced them to leave and often forced their menfolk to stay. The numbers in Albania are now 100,000, and the flow is continuing. In Macedonia, there were 16,000 refugees before 24 March, and another 14,500 have arrived. More are expected.

We share the concern of the House and people worldwide that the response to the crisis needs to be speeded up. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is leading a co-ordinated international response. We are doing all we can to support UNHCR, otherUN agencies, the International Red Cross and non-governmental organisations which are providing assistance in the area.

At the beginning of this week, the Prime Minister announced that we had made available up to £10 million as an initial response to the current crisis. We are using this funding to get the most urgently needed items to where they are required. This is in addition to the £3 million provided for emergency relief in Kosovo since March 1998.

The first UK emergency flight, carrying 42 tonnes of tents and blankets, arrived in Tirana early this morning, and the supplies are now being distributed. A further flight using an RAF C130 aircraft is taking more tents and blankets to Skopje today. A UK-funded flight with UNHCR emergency personnel and supplies is also leaving

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Amsterdam today for Tirana. We have also agreed to help airlift supplies into the region from warehouses in Europe, the middle east and north Africa.

We are identifying other ways of meeting urgent needs. We are providing emergency health kits through the World Health Organisation to cover the needs of 70,000 people for three months. We have provided £500,000 to help support the Red Cross operations in the region. We have asked NGOs working in the region to tell us their needs and have offered them logistical assistance to get into the field. We have in the last hour provided £500,000 to the World Food Programme so that it can move the food that it has to the people who are in need.

We will make further allocations over the coming days as needs become clear. To help identify these needs, we are sending an assessment and monitoring team to the region. The members of it will leave the UK this weekend, led by the head of my conflict and humanitarian affairs department.

The situation in Kosovo is a terrible tragedy--just as was the suffering inflicted in Bosnia by the same regime engaging in the same monstrous behaviour. This time, the difference is that the international community is acting militarily to halt the aggression. Everyone should be clear that the Kosovo refugees support the military action. They need urgent help with food, shelter and other emergency provisions. But they are clear that they want NATO to succeed and that they want to return to their homes. We are doing all in our power to support the UN effort and to speed up the humanitarian response. We will remain committed until we can assist with the much more welcome task of helping the refugees to return home.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for letting me have a copy of it a short while ago. I was in Kosovo just a few weeks ago, and she will recognise that her comments about the desire of displaced people to return to their homes is very much what they are saying to us all. Their desire is for peace and security and to return home, and everything that we do must facilitate that.

I welcome much of the action that the right hon. Lady has now taken. With half a million displaced people--a quarter of a population of about 2 million--it is now obvious that we are dealing with a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Does she agree that the UNHCR has been doing a first-class job in dealing with the crisis to date, and continues to do so? Does she agree, and will she never tire of saying, that it is President Milosevic who is responsible for the crisis? Does she agree also that it is the children who are particularly vulnerable? I understand that many who are crossing the border are suffering from pneumonia and bronchitis. Will she ensure that the health and welfare of children will be a specific priority for us in our humanitarian response?

The air strikes began on 24 March 1999. Will the right hon. Lady say to what extent her Department had by that date already prepared an action plan to meet the refugee crisis that would inevitably follow? When was the interdepartmental Kosovo emergency task force set up and when did it first meet? What co-ordination has taken place between her Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence in producing her Government's response? In other words, did she anticipate the flood of refugees and has her Department prepared for it?

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The opening paragraph of the right hon. Lady's statement can be described only as getting in her retaliation first. She must understand that many people feel that when aeroplanes were given the green light to fly, the humanitarian relief effort should at the same time have been ready to roll. Can she tell us what co-ordination there has been between her and the aid Ministers in all the NATO countries in preparing for this effort, and when it began?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that given that the conflict is on the doorstep of Europe, this provides an opportunity for the European Union, through the European Community Humanitarian Organisation which both she and I have rightly criticised in the past, to rise to the challenge and provide focused, urgent and effective aid to the people of Kosovo? Does she think that it will?

Will the right hon. Lady say a little more about the logistical difficulties that face the relief effort? Does she believe that the UNHCR has sufficient people to co-ordinate the humanitarian relief? What specific plans are in place to overcome the logistical difficulty in getting food, blankets and medicines to people who need them?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that north-west Albania is particularly unsuitable for many of the refugees because there are many Albanian armed bands roaming around? What steps are in hand to help the Albanian Government deal with those problems? Does she envisage a role for British troops in Bosnia and in Macedonia, helping to deliver humanitarian assistance?

The right hon. Lady has said that her Department will support applications from NGOs seeking funds for their response to the crisis. What amount of her budget will she be making available in addition to the amount already allocated?

Does the right hon. Lady support the appeal for funds launched by several British charities this week? Will her Government support the initiative put to the Prime Minister this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition--that the Government should match, pound for pound, the money raised by the generous people of Britain? Will she put politics aside and support that initiative?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman started well and rose to the occasion. He said how serious this crisis is and backed what the Government are doing, but then, of course, his remarks deteriorated. The hon. Gentleman's comment that there is something wrong with my making the very important point that everyone who is moved by this suffering has got to bear in mind the fact that they should be angry with Slobodan Milosevic, not with the UN, suggests that there is something wrong with him.

The hon. Gentleman asked all those detailed little questions about when our Department moved. We are famous throughout the world humanitarian system for being the fastest. We are providing planes, we are moving the UNHCR's own resources and we are moving resources that are not in this country. We are the fastest and we have gone the farthest. Everyone who knows in any detail about these situations knows that that is Britain's contribution.

The co-ordination between our Departments has been seamless. Our officials--many of whom have notbeen getting much sleep recently--are in contact all the time, and Ministers are in contact all the time. The

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refugees, the Albanian Prime Minister and all the people in the region are sending messages of thanks. We do not want messages of thanks, but we want to do a good job and we are ensuring that we will do that.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the EC has made a commitment of resources and we have to make sure that they get to the people on the ground very quickly. He asked whether the UNHCR has enough people in the region. The answer is no, but we are helping to fly people in on the planes that we have already organised. He is right to say that the situation in north-west Albania is very unsuitable; people are far too near the border and they are in danger. Buses have been provided by the Italians and people are being moved away. Encampments are being set up in playing fields near the capital as we speak.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether British troops should help with the effort. We and the Ministry of Defence have agreed that it would be desirable, particularly in Macedonia, for the troops to help with the humanitarian effort. Obviously, NATO has to agree. The people of Albania are being so generous; they are taking even more people into their homes, and Albanian troops are helping, but the problem is in Macedonia and I hope that we shall be able to make progress there.

We will supply support to NGOs that are already in the region. That is the only way to get things done quickly. We do not put money into boxes in order to allocate it; we put money into pockets where it can be delivered on the ground immediately. That is how we proceed. It is up to NGOs whether they appeal for funds, but the problem is not money, but logistics. There is enough food and there are enough tents and blankets, but they are not where the people are. That job involves organisation and logistics, and we are ahead of the game.

I heard what the Leader of the Opposition said, and the Prime Minister has said that he would consider his proposal, but my instinct is that it would slow things up. That is not what we need at the moment.

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