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East/West: Britain Struggles With Influx Of Asylum Seekers

London, 30 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Britain is considering emergency plans to use hundreds of disused army barracks and other military buildings to temporarily accommodate a growing number of refugees from Kosovo, Albania, Slovakia, and Romania.

Thousands from the Balkans have shown up in London in recent months, putting temporary accommodation in the city under immense pressure. Many claim to be asylum-seekers but officials reject this, saying they want to cash in on Britain's welfare benefits.

British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw has been having urgent talks with officials in Brussels on a solution to serious problem which is now affecting much of Western Europe.

Straw is under growing public pressure to take action to curb the influx by reimposing visas on visitors from the region.

Britain is struggling to cope with an influx of more than 4,000 refugees a month, mainly fleeing the ethnic conflict in Kosovo and civil strife in Albania, but including hundreds of Romany from Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. This is a 60 percent increase on last year. London alone is supporting more than 40,000 asylum-seekers at a cost to the taxpayer of almost 1 million dollars a week.

One local government authority, Brent Council in northwest London, is now receiving 60 requests a day for accommodation by refugees from Kosovo and Albania. After a backlash of public anger from local people and politicians, it had to shelve a plan to house the refugees in temporary "tent" shelters in London parks.

Londoners complain of harassment from beggars, including young children, in public places including the underground railway system, and of families sleeping rough in parks and underpasses.

More than 800 Romany from the Slovak and Czech republics claimed asylum in Britain last month alone, many saying they had been attacked by skinheads in their homelands. More than twice as many have sought asylum in recent weeks as in all of 1997. Slovak and Czech officials deny their claims of organized harassment.

Romany families from the Czech and Slovak republics began arriving in Britain last autumn after broadcast of a Czech TV program featuring asylum seekers living on welfare benefits.

Britain has refused to sign the Schengen agreement which effectively dispenses with border checks in most EU nations. But Balkans refugees find it relatively easy to cross Europe to Paris or Brussels where they catch Eurostar trains under the Channel Tunnel to London. Other refugees arrive at London's airports. As many do not require visas, airlines are obliged to carry them.

Many of the would-be refugees complain that Britain is a far less sympathetic place than they had been led to believe. Britain says bogus asylum-seekers will be automatically expelled, and the chances of most refugees of obtaining asylum are negligible.

Britain last week announced a $196 million emergency package of measures including the provision of more immigration officers and tougher police action against gangs operating immigration rackets.

EU home affairs ministers have agreed that the answer to the refugee influx is more cooperation across Europe, with tougher action to deter economic migrants, although not the small minority genuinely fleeing political persecution.