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Czech Republic/Slovakia: Britain Warns It May Reimpose Visas

London, 2 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Britain says it may reimpose visa requirements for Czechs to stop an influx of asylum-seeking Romanies, many of them originally from Slovakia.

Interior ministry officials say 650 Romanies have arrived at London's Heathrow airport in the past month alone, swelling the numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Britain to record levels.

Along with other west European countries, Britain is already struggling to cope with an influx of asylum seekers from former Yugoslavia, particularly refugees from the ethnic conflict in Kosovo.

British officials say up to 50 Romanies from the Czech Republic and Slovakia are arriving in Britain every day. A total of some 900 asylum seekers from the two Central European countries have arrived in Britain this year -- double the number last year.

A Home Office (interior ministry) official said many asylum-seekers claim they are fleeing racial harassment at home, particularly attacks by skinheads. Czech and Slovak officials have rejected their claims of organized harassment.

The British official said citizens from the region do not need visas for Britain so airlines are obliged to carry them. Once in Britain, the Romanies' chances of obtaining asylum are said to be negligible -- but it gives them a break while their applications are processed. Britain says bogus asylum-seekers will be automatically expelled.

Romany asylum-seekers began arriving in Britain last autumn after the broadcast of a TV program in the Czech Republic which reported that Britain's welfare benefits and its asylum system were easy to manipulate. British politicians said they were not genuine asylum-seekers but were arriving for economic reasons, and had put an unacceptable burden on welfare services. One said bogus asylum seekers "normally go for the line of least resistance, and word had got around that Britain was a soft touch."

Subsequently, the Czech government appealed to Britain not to reimpose visas for their citizens, and the Slovak government made TV and radio appeals urging Romanies not to travel to Britain.

In the wake of the latest influx, the British ambassador in Prague, David Broucher, has held talks with Czech officials aimed at stemming the influx of refugees. It is understood that British officials in Slovakia are also in talks with the relevant authorities.

Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are being urged to remove what are described as "discriminatory problems" at home which are said to be one cause of the Romany exodus.

Meanwhile, British officials are to hold crisis talks with local government bodies in London over an influx of hundreds of asylum-seekers from Kosovo, scene of an ethnic conflict involving Serbian security forces and ethnic Albanian separatists. Facilities in London to cope with the influx are said to be at breaking point.

Recent weeks have seen a growing number of illegal entries with refugees prepared to endure hazardous long-haul trips across Europe concealed in trucks. Among the new arrivals are many children, sent alone by parents to travel across Europe. So far, 519 unaccompanied children have arrived seeking asylum.

British officials say the total number of asylum-seekers has risen by 20 percent this year, most from Central/Eastern Europe and Africa. There is a backlog of some 20,000 asylum claims, leading for calls -- as in Germany -- for politicians to adopt a much tougher line.