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4.31 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, before we move to the Statement on humanitarian assistance for Kosovo refugees, I should like to take the opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification. Peers who speak at length do so at the expense of other noble Lords.

I wonder whether if I might also take the opportunity to say to the House that, following further discussions between the usual channels, it has been agreed that there will not be any additional Statements today. Noble

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Lords wishing to read tonight's Commons Statement will be able to obtain a copy of the relevant Hansard from the Printed Paper Office.

Kosovo Refugees: Humanitarian Assistance

4.32 p.m.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

    "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. But 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 outrage must be directed at the Serbian aggression and not the UN 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 over a quarter of a million internally displaced people within Kosovo, and a further hundred thousand in neighbouring countries, before NATO intervened. But the situation has sharply deteriorated 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 continues. In Macedonia there were 16,000 refugees before 24th 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, other UN agencies, the International Red Cross and NGOs, which are providing assistance.

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    "At the beginning of this week the Prime Minister announced that we had made available up to a further £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 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 Amsterdam today for Tirana. We have also agreed to help airlift supplies into the region from UNHCR warehouses in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. A further eight UK organised relief flights into Albania and Macedonia are planned for the coming week. We have, in the last hour, provided £500,000 for the world's food programme to assist in the distribution of food to those in need.

    "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 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. They 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 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 more welcome task of helping the refugees to return home."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement

4.38 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State. We on this side of the House welcome much of the action that has been taken. I am grateful, too, for this Statement covering the humanitarian side of the war in Kosovo as it was due to the humanitarian atrocities committed by President Milosevic that NATO became involved initially.

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I should also like to add to what previous noble Lords have said on other occasions: that we on this side of the House take immense pride in our British Armed Forces and the professionalism that has seen them successfully minimalise civilian casualties, at great risk to themselves. I trust that the noble Baroness agrees that, with 500,000 people displaced--one-quarter of a population of 2 million--that is an extremely serious humanitarian crisis. I hope that the noble Baroness will also agree that President Milosevic is responsible for the crisis.

The air strikes started on 24th March. Can the noble Baroness tell the House to what extent her department had already prepared, by that date, an action plan to meet the refugee crisis that would inevitably follow? I understand, as she said in the Statement, that her department was unaware of the scale, but it must have realised that the situation would be serious. When was the interdepartmental Kosovo emergency task force set up? Can the noble Baroness tell the House what co-ordination has taken place between her department and the FCO and the MoD in producing that plan? In other words, did she anticipate the flood of refugees and the awful reprisals carried out on the Kosovan people? Had her department prepared, in any way, for these horrific circumstances?

In this country we are incredibly lucky to have outstanding NGOs. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, reminded us in a previous debate that there are about 16 non-governmental organisations active in Kosovo at the moment. Luckily, and by good management, the Red Cross had stockpiles already prepared. A joint appeal involving the Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, which is all important in this area, with the International Red Cross, will start tomorrow.

Does the noble Baroness understand that many will feel that at the same time as aeroplanes were given the green light to fly, the humanitarian relief effort should have been ready to roll? Can she tell us what co-ordination there has been between herself and aid Ministers in all the NATO countries in preparing for that effort? When did it begin?

Does she agree that, given that this conflict is on the doorstep of Europe, there is an opportunity for the European Community to respond, through the ECHO, which both she and I have rightly criticised in the past, to the challenge and provide focused, urgent and effective aid to the people of Kosovo? Perhaps some of the European Union food surpluses could be sent to Albania and Macedonia for the Kosovan refugees.

Does the noble Baroness believe that the UNHCR has sufficient people on the ground to co-ordinate the humanitarian effort? What specific plans are in place to overcome the logistical difficulties in getting food, blankets and medicine to those who need them? Does she agree that the situation on the ground in north-west Albania, with little by way of law and order, is particularly unsuitable for many of the refugees? Are steps in hand to help the Albanians to put in place the necessary structures? Does the noble Baroness see a role for British troops in Bosnia and Macedonia to help to deliver humanitarian assistance?

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Finally, what plans are her department making to switch aid once the political situation is restored and convert it into long-term development assistance which the people of Kosovo will need to rebuild their homes and their lives so that they can go back in safety? Will the Government make absolutely certain that the Serbs play a full part, both physically and economically?

4.43 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I also thank the Minister for her kindness in repeating the Statement made in another place. I congratulate her department on its rapid reaction to the extremely disturbing refugee situation. Perhaps I can also take this opportunity to congratulate the German Government, which I understand intends to call a meeting of all the neighbouring states to try to resolve some of the problems that have arisen. That seems to me a proper use of the German presidency of the European Union.

Perhaps I may ask the indulgence of your Lordships and mention the names of some who have been killed in the last day or two in Kosovo. They include Mr. Agami, one of the leading negotiators for the Albanian team who signed the Rambouillet agreement, and Mr. Haxhiu, the outstanding editor of a newspaper of remarkable independence in Kosovo. Mr. Surroi, a brave and outspoken fighter for human rights and press freedom, has fled and his fate is unknown. Most tragic and ironic of all perhaps is the case of Mr. Ibrahim Rugova, who, as many noble Lords will know, is an apostle of non-violence throughout the Balkans. He is a man who has never advocated violence in his life, whose house has been burned down and who, we understand, has fled into the mountains. That puts into human terms the terrible scale of what is happening in Kosovo, where even negotiators for settlements are now being slaughtered.

I shall make one other comment before I turn to two questions. I shall not detain the House for long. My comment is that the scale of the refugee crisis is such as to threaten destabilisation of the neighbouring countries, in particular Macedonia and Albania. Macedonia is a state held together on the basis of an Albanian minority and a Slav majority. As many will know, it is a flimsy and fragile state whose democracy is important to the stability of this part of south-eastern Europe. Many of us fear that if the Albanian refugees remain for a long period in Macedonia that fragile democracy could be threatened. It is vital that those refugees who wish to move on are given the chance to do so.

On Albania, I concur with what the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said from the Conservative Benches. This is a border in almost total chaos. Some noble Lords will recall that from these Benches we have asked, time and time again, that aid be sent to the Albanian border to assist in protecting that border. That is now more urgent than ever. It is a border characterised as porous to the movement of arms, drugs, people and many other highly undesirable elements in the war currently being fought.

I turn to my two questions. The first is in regard to the troops currently in Kumanovo, some eight or nine miles from the border. Recently, I saw that troop

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formation. There are large numbers of very well trained troops, 3,200 of them. They are highly motivated British men and women. There are many trucks and personnel carriers and there are many methods of trying to move people and cargo around. As they are a peacekeeping force, I wonder whether the Ministry of Defence will consider their use in a humanitarian capacity, both to register refugees as they come over the border and to help to move some of them away from that dangerous and vulnerable area. The refugees, some of whom need medical help, are piling up on the Macedonian border and waiting, in some cases for hours, to be dealt with.

I understand that there are members of the Irish Guards, the King's Royal Hussars and the Fourth Regiment of the Royal Artillery in the Operation Agricola group of troops. Will the Minister commend the idea to her right honourable friend and her colleague in this House that those troops should assist? I do not need to underline how vital it is that we are seen to be engaged in humanitarian relief, and using those resources for that purpose.

My second question concerns the Home Office. Again, I raise an issue concerning a department other than that of the noble Baroness. At present, a number of Kosovars are in detention in this country. Their claim that they are liable to persecution to the limit of their lives is doubted by our immigration authorities. I do not blame them in any way. It now seems clear that that is likely to be a very reasonable argument. Will Her Majesty's Government consider, at least temporarily, allowing those detainees to be resettled for the time being in this country and will they lift the visa regime, which currently means that refugees are piling up in Calais? It is vital that the EU as a whole considers the refugees and how best to deal with them.

Finally, I wish to draw one lesson from this. It is now overwhelmingly clear that any agreement to end the war, dreadful as it is, must include an international protectorate in Kosovo because we cannot expect half a million refugees to return to a country in which they were tortured and raped and where they have seen family members murdered unless they have an absolutely firm guarantee that the territory is under the control of international UN or NATO forces which will not allow such atrocities to occur again.

4.50 p.m.

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I should like first to support the statement made by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, about our pride in our Armed Forces and their professionalism. That point is consistently made in this House. I agree with the noble Baroness that this is a serious humanitarian crisis. I was asked particularly about whether the department had prepared an action plan. The Department for International Development has considerable expertise and experience in humanitarian assistance, as is recognised worldwide. There has been ongoing co-ordination involving Ministers and officials throughout the crisis, with constant conversations and meetings.

In relation to non-governmental organisations, I am aware that the NGOs have agreed to launch an appeal. Obviously, this is a matter for them, but we are

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supporting the humanitarian effort, having allocated £10 million to the humanitarian crisis. Other donors have contributed significantly, including the European Union. ECHO has allocated 10 million ecus for humanitarian assistance through UNHCR, the Red Cross and other organisations. On the matter of whether we consider that the UNHCR has sufficient people on the ground, we are assisting that organisation by helping it to fly people into the area. So we do not consider that it has enough people on the ground at this point.

On the question of the logistical difficulties of assisting refugees, there is a problem in the north of Albania. The territory is difficult and it is cold. The Italians have assisted by sending in coaches to move people from the north down to the south. It is proposed to establish refugee camps near Tirane, using two football pitches.

Both noble Baronesses asked about the role of British troops. We think it desirable that troops assist with the humanitarian effort. We are holding discussions on that point, but clearly the troops also have other military duties to manage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, asked a specific question on the Home Office and asylum for Kosovar refugees. That point is under active discussion. I understand that the UNHCR has called a meeting. It will take place in Geneva on Tuesday and this is one of the items on the agenda. The noble Baroness will understand that I am unable to say more at this stage, but I undertake to write to her once the outcome of those discussions is known.

4.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. Is everything being done to draw the NGOs fully into the relief effort? Many have partners on the ground. Christian Aid, for example, has partners in both Macedonia and Italy. They have a valuable perspective and much experience. I hope that they are being fully involved.

Secondly, can the Minister comment on the disturbing reports coming through this afternoon that unless relief reaches people in Kosovo within two weeks there is likely to be starvation there? Obviously, with Serbian troops in control of Kosovo, it seems that virtually nothing can be done, but has the Minister any thoughts on whether it is possible to do something to meet that impending further disaster?

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