7 March 2022

Protecting Ukrainian refugees: What can we learn from the response to Kosovo in the 90s?

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As debate rages about the UK's response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, British Future Associate Fellow Jill Rutter looks at what the UK can learn from the response to the last major movement of refugees from a war in Europe - the break-up of Yugoslavia.

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The invasion of Ukraine has led to the flight of refugees from a European country on a scale not seen since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. At that time, conflict and human rights abuses led to millions of people fleeing for safety, with some of them – mostly Bosnians and Kosovans – arriving in the UK. There are lessons to be learned from the response to refugee movements from the Former Yugoslavia that are relevant today.

The breakup of Yugoslavia led to worsening human rights abuses in Kosovo from 1990. Opponents of the Milosevic regime were beaten and detained, and Albanian-medium schools were closed. Some ethnic Albanians turned to armed resistance. By March 1998, over 350,000 refugees had fled their homes after worsening violence. Peace talks were initiated, but ultimately failed and in April 1999 NATO planes bombed targets in Serbia and Kosovo. More than 1.5million people – from a total population of just 2million – then fled, with 750,000 refugees seeking safety in neighbouring countries.

Refugees from Kosovo started arriving in the UK in the early 1990s. In 1998, 7,980 asylum applications from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were lodged with the Home Office, mostly from people who had come from Kosovo. Some of these refugees arrived by plane, others were clandestine entrants. At this time, Kosovans were the largest group in camps that grew up around Calais.

When war broke out in April 1999, public opinion forced the UK Government to set up the Kosovo resettlement programme, with the first evacuation flight arriving at Leeds-Bradford Airport on 25 April 1999. Some 4,346 Kosovo refugees were eventually evacuated to the UK by this route from camps in Macedonia, and either granted family visas (if they had relatives in the UK), or one year of Exceptional Leave to Remain. Reception centres and integration support was organised by the Refugee Council and later by local authorities. Those who came through the evacuation programme were allowed to work, in contrast to Kosovan asylum-seekers who could not work and received little by way of integration support. By the year 2000 about half of the UK’s Kosovans had returned home, although the 2011 census showed that there were 28,390 people living in the UK who had been born in Kosovo.

What lessons can be learned from this period? First, it is essential that the processing of visas in countries of first asylum is a quick and efficient process. In 1999, the evacuation programme was set up quickly and UNHCR and Home Office teams worked in the camps and processed visas rapidly. This is in stark contrast to today’s Home Office response to Ukrainians, which has been slow, lacking in clarity and unnecessarily bureaucratic.

In 1999 those who came to the UK via camps in Macedonia were treated differently to spontaneous asylum arrivals, with the latter receiving less help to integrate.

The Government needs to recognise that desperate people will use different routes to reach safety. Asylum systems should not punish those who make unauthorised border crossings. But the current Nationality and Borders Bill proposes a two-tier system of protection, where a refugee’s rights will depend on how they arrived in the UK. It is important that the way Ukrainians arrive in the UK does not determine how they are treated.

Asylum was a salient issue in 1999. Overall asylum numbers had increased and sections of the media were hostile to refugees. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which set up a dispersal system and voucher support, was being debated in Parliament. While there was a great deal of public support for Kosovan refugees in early 1999, this was not maintained and did not translate into strong public sympathy for other groups of refugees. Limited social contact with refugees may have influenced public attitudes. Research from the Refugee Council suggest that low levels of social contact between refugees and the host community meant that once Kosovo was no longer in the news, public attitudes reverted to how they had been before the crisis. In 1999, the City of Sanctuary movement had not been set up and there were fewer welcoming organisations that supported social integration. Social contact is very important in maintaining public support for refugees. It helps dispel misconceptions between different groups of people and develops empathy between them.

The events of 1999 prompted the Home Office to improve its emergency planning, and to increase its support for integration. Getting Ukrainian resettlement right requires that we get integration right and the Government needs to lead by example. Everyone can play a part in welcoming people: Government, mayors and councils, our institutions such as schools and business, but also the public, simply by being welcoming to newcomers.

In 1999, both Serbs and Kosovans lived side-by-side in our big cities. Today, there are Russian and Ukrainian populations in many local authorities. Early results from the Census suggests 53,000 Russia-born people living in the UK in 2021, and nearly 38,000 from Ukraine. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians may have come to the UK from other countries, for example from Poland and the Baltic states, and may hold a range nationalities. In 1999, not all Serbs who lived in the UK supported Slobodan Milosevic. Today, it is important to remember that not all Russians who live in the UK are oligarchs and many, perhaps most, do not support the war. Russians, like other migrants, have come to the UK to work or study, because they have fallen in love with someone in the UK, or in a few cases to seek safety. As human rights worsen, the UK may see more asylum-seekers coming from Russia. They too must be treated fairly.

The majority of Kosovans returned home by 2000, although UNHCR initially discouraged what it saw as premature return to a war-damaged country. UK aid supported the rebuilding of Kosovo and the return of refugees. The Home Office granted ‘return and test’ concessions to people’s leave to remain in the UK, allowing Kosovans to make a trip home to see if was safe to return. (Generally returning to a country of origin puts refugee status or leave to remain in jeopardy). All of us hope the conflict in Ukraine is short-lived and refugees can return home. But return needs to be orderly and Ukraine will need support in its reconstruction and in the safe return of refugees.

Lastly, healthy democracies require that the international community does not neglect civil society. There continues to be international support for civil society organisations in the Balkans. This is in contrast to Russia, where international support to civil society has been more limited, even at a time when it was possible to fund Russian organisations from abroad. Yet some British business has done well from the Yeltsin-era privatisations of the 1990s, events that led to the rise of the oligarch class, corruption and to Russia becoming a deeply unequal society. Today, civil society organisations do operate in Russia, particularly those that focus on economic and environmental issues. But international funding of these groups is not allowed and it is hard to work in an authoritarian society. In the long-term, thriving civil society and healthy democracies will help to guarantee a sustainable peace in Ukraine and in Russia.

Jill Rutter was education adviser at the Refugee Council from 1989-2001, was involved in the Kosovan programme and through The European Council on Refugees and Exiles for ECRE, and worked with Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian civil society organisations. Jill is an Associate Fellow at British Future.


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