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Czech Republic: Airport Screenings Lead To Dilemma Of Defining 'Refugees'

  • Tony Wesolowsky

The British customs controls at Prague's international airport have focused attention on refugee issues, as some 100 people -- many of them Roma -- have been denied flights to Britain since the checks began earlier this month. The Roma are seeking asylum in the West, and say they are fleeing persecution in the Czech Republic. But the Czech and British governments, for the most part, don't see it that way. They contend the Roma are merely economic migrants seeking better jobs or social welfare payouts in the West. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky reports that as immigration numbers have swelled in the West, the question of how best to deal with asylum-seekers is more important than ever.

Prague, 31 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The controversy at Prague's Ruzyne airport has refocused attention on an important question throughout the West: Who is a refugee and who is an economic migrant?

The benchmark document defining refugees and their rights is the United Nations Refugee convention, which celebrated its 50th anniversary over the weekend. It generally defines refugees as those fleeing "persecution" in various forms.

When the convention came into force on 28 July 1951, the world was a very different place. Western Europe was struggling to cope with the aftermath of World War II and the many millions it had uprooted. Today, some Western countries, including Britain, say the changes that have occurred over the past half-century need to be taken into account in tackling contemporary refugee issues.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw has argued that those who drafted the convention in 1951 could not have foreseen the rapid development of mass transportation systems that have encouraged the rise in economic migration.

Peter Stalker, author of the book "Workers without Frontiers -- the Impact of Globalization on International Migration," says that by 1990, transport costs per mile had dropped to 20 percent of the 1930 levels. That has made it easier -- as well as cheaper -- for people to leave home and seek work abroad.

Migration statistics bear this out. In 1965, some 75 million people left home to work abroad. By the 1990s, according to Stalker, the number had grown to 120 million worldwide. The 1990s, which witnessed major conflicts in the Balkans as well as the disintegration of the Soviet Union, further swelled the numbers of people traveling to the West.

But as the West has moved to stem the flow of immigration, more and more people seeking to move West have attempted entry as asylum-seekers instead. And the issue of what separates economic migrants from asylum-seekers remains a contentious one.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers says European governments have failed to differentiate between the two. The result, he says, is that "just about everybody ends up being treated with suspicion."

The Roma trying to leave the Czech Republic are no exception. Part of the problem in dealing with asylum-seekers is defining what persecution is. Czech Roma seeking asylum abroad typically cite systematic abuses of human rights or attacks by neo-Nazis as proof of persecution. But countries like Britain have typically not accepted such reasoning. While acknowledging the Roma have been the targets of prejudice and neo-Nazi attacks, Western governments do not tend to view such cases as "systematic" persecution. And in picking out who is and who isn't a legitimate asylum-seeker, it is the governments who determine the criteria.

Earlier this month, British customs officers were dispatched to Prague's international airport to begin reviewing the documents of air passengers traveling from Prague to London in a bid to reduce the number of ineligible Czech citizens -- primarily Roma -- seeking asylum in Britain. Czech officials agreed to the controversial step to avoid the reimposition of British entry visas for Czech citizens.

UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville says the British customs checks at the Prague airport are the latest effort by a Western country to make it harder for refugees to seek asylum:

"Over the past decade we've seen sort of an increase in measures designed to keep all people away from the shores, all people from even getting to a position where they could claim asylum. I don't think this has been maliciously aimed at refugees themselves -- most people still have sympathy for refugees. But it certainly had the probably unintended side-effect of making it extremely hard for refugees to access certain countries."

Colville dismisses suggestions that the refugee convention should be amended, saying it should fall to Western European governments to draw up comprehensive and effective immigration programs of their own. For some would-be migrants, Colville explains, the asylum route is the only legal channel left to them.

"That's been very detrimental to refugees, because barriers have been put up that people can't cross any other way except to claim to be a refugee, so this has attracted some bogus claimants and that in turn got a little bit exaggerated as a phenomenon and then in turn people attack the convention, and it has nothing to do with the convention. The convention performs its job very well if it's allowed to do it. But you certainly need another system to deal with all the other types of people on the move."

The European Commission has rejected calls to renegotiate the 1951 refugee convention. But the Commission last week also said that it would strive to respond to the need for "new forms of protection" for people fleeing crises such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. At the same time, however, the Commission announced proposals that could replace the Dublin Convention, which the EU agreed to in 1990. That convention, which says asylum-seekers should apply in the first EU member state they enter, has worked badly in practice and been criticized by some members. The new proposals would make it easier for Britain, for example, to return asylum-seekers to France if it can prove that France was their first port of entry in the EU.

Colville predicts the lot of the refugee and the economic migrant will improve only when Western governments realize immigrants can be a boon, and not just a burden. He says attitudes in the West may already be starting to change, and points to a recent German government report saying the country will need tens of thousands of migrants in the coming years to meet growing job demands.

"I think several other European countries are starting to realize that [zero] migration is both not feasible anymore and that it is encouraging the smuggling gangs, which cause everyone so many problems. And [they are realizing] that they actually do need some migrants for their work forces."

For the time being, however, strict customs screenings like the new British project at the Prague airport seem less like a temporary measure and more like the wave of the future.