Kosovo's refugees set to ignore return plea

An appeal to UK-based Kosovar refugees to come home and help to rebuild their country is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Kosovo assembly president Nexhat Daci made the plea during a recent fact-finding mission to the UK, and received immediate encouragement from a British government eager to tighten asylum procedures.

"We now have peace in Kosovo with the help of British soldiers so Kosovars should come back to rebuild their country using skills and experience gained in the UK," Daci said.

However, Claire Doole, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, believes the appeal is an attempt to push refugees into leaving the UK as part of Home Secretary David Blunkett's ongoing efforts to curb immigration.

"It is not safe for these people to go back as Daci and the foreign office have claimed. We question his role and think the government should investigate why he is declaring Kosovo to be safe," Doole said.

UNHCR, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) have stated that some refugees - especially Roma and Albanians married to Serbs - should not be forced to return to the region under any circumstances.

Daci made his comments after a meeting with Blunkett, and the British foreign office was quick to quote him in a press release urging Kosovars to "drop their asylum appeals and return home."

Kosovo Albanian refugees Boya and Yaka believe it probably would be safe for them to go home, but they are reluctant to do so. "It may be fine in terms of safety but in terms of going there and trying to rebuild the country, it's a big step," said Boya. A qualified architect now living in Enfield, North London, Boya arrived in Britain in 1998 with his wife and two sons. "The danger was genuine. Around 2,000 Albanians were killed just after we left," he recounted.

"My two sons were four and five when I came here. They started school as soon as we arrived and already they've started to forget their Albanian identity. My son asks me, 'why should we go back? Everything I have is here now, here is my country'. How can I explain to him that we might have to leave when there isn't a war or any danger?"

Boya's wife is studying for a Master's degree in IT, a sector the British government claims is critically short of qualified workers. Yet neither is allowed to work. The family relies on social benefits and Boya and his wife are being treated for depression.

"I cannot work or make plans to build a house here or get a mortgage. I made an appeal to the home office a year ago and I haven't heard anything back since. They are trying to make things as difficult as possible for us to stop more people from applying for asylum, but it is not working. We are just suffering more as a consequence," he concluded.

Yaka arrived in the UK in July 1998 hidden among freight on a cargo plane - a trip bought with his desperate family's entire savings. They were not so lucky in their bid to escape the country, but were reunited in 1999 after Yaka's sister tracked them down in Macedonian holding camps with the help of a French camera crew. The family stayed at a Leeds refugee centre until the war ended, returning to Kosovo to rebuild their lives.

Yaka chose to stay behind and is unsure how to respond to Daci's appeal. "I've given it a lot of thought. I would like to finish the media studies degree I'm studying for at City university first. There are so many jobless in Kosovo, so the least I could do is get qualified," he said.

"I've been in London for four years now. My lifestyle has changed. People think we are having the time of our lives here, but living and working in London is tough, not just financially, but you're away from your family and friends.

"There are few prospects at home. If I go back now I'll be laying bricks or something and I want more than that. When the time comes to leave I will say thank you very much to the UK for letting me stay and it was a great experience. Then I'll go back and rebuild my country, but not now."

The foreign office says it has not been involved in any plans to help the large numbers of Kosovar refugees living in the UK to return home. Meanwhile, the home secretary has voiced his firm commitment to toughen up the asylum process.

"We will return those people suspected of abusing the system as soon as we have rejected their claim. If they choose to appeal, they will have to do so from their home country," Blunkett said recently.

But the majority of the thousands of Kosovars who have put down roots in Britain are determined to do whatever they can to remain in the country they now consider home.

As both Boya and Yaka make clear, safety is no longer the primary consideration, although it remains a serious issue for minority groups.

Britain offers refugees access to a good education, the opportunity to earn money, some of which can be sent back to relatives in Kosovo, and better prospects for their children. Asked to choose between this and the rubble and memories they left behind, it's not hard to see why Daci's appeal will go largely unheeded.