Waiting to care for Kosovo's children

9th April 1999 at 01:00
LOCAL authorities have been urged to brace themselves for what could prove the biggest European refugee crisis since end of the Second World War.

Thousands of Kosovan children may need educating in Britain and a network of temporary, part-time classes seems a likely option.

With all details of numbers and timings still uncertain, there has been no guidance from the Department for Education and Employment.

Empty schools and prisons will house some of the arrivals, thought likely to number between 10,000 and 20,000, under contingency plans drawn up by the Home Office.

As the humanitarian crisis deepened, Europe's home affairs ministers are deciding how many refugees each country will take. At least 400,000 have fled Kosovo in the past week, including a quarter of a million of children.

"We need to get these children into UK schools as soon as possible," said Jill Rutter, education co-ordinator at the Refugee Council. "It doesn't matter if they stay six months or 10 years. They can transfer what they learn when, and if, they get home."

On arrival the refugees will be dispersed into reception centres around the country. Local councils have agreed to make empty buildings available in the short-term.

British ministers have made it clear that such large numbers would only be allowed entry for a fixed term. And campaigners fear they will opt to set up temporary schools. Ministers have already floated the idea of providing a separate education for all refugees. Campaigners say that would be damaging, both educationally and psychologically.

In the early 1990s 5,000 Bosnian refugees were airlifted to Britain. Within a fortnight of arrival, all the children had joined existing classes. Other countries, such as Denmark, opened temporary schools; but as very few children returned to Bosnia, many are still receiving a part-time education.

There are around 9,000 Kosovan refugees already in the UK. Guzmend Bici arrived alone in the UK three months ago. The 17-year-old is receiving help with his English at a temporary school in a community centre in Barking, east London. But he says that like most others he would rather be in Kosovo than here without his family.

At least 60,000 Kosovan children were denied an education in the months preceding the crisis. Albanians have attempted to run their own schools in the province since 1989, when President Milosevic abolished autonomy.

There have been other large-scale refugee influxes from a single country in recent years. In the 1970s, 24,000 people fleeing the Vietnam war entered Britain along with 28,000 Asians who escaped Idi Amin's regime in Uganda. Today, both groups are among the highest-achieving ethnic minorities in UK schools.

"Teachers should aim to get the children into a routine and start the learning process as quickly as possible. It's important to try and treat refugee children like ordinary pupils, but make space to listen if needed," said Jill Rutter.

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