London, 23 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A newly formed Romany (gypsy) refugee group in Britain says that the Czech Republic should not be welcomed into the EU until it observes democratic standards on human rights and the treatment of minorities.
The Roma Refugee Organization was set up in London two months ago by some of the hundreds of Czech Roma who have sought asylum in Britain in recent months. The refugees say they are the target of persecution at home by skinheads and other far-right groups.
They have written to Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, who visited Britain this week, to say that Roma have been subject to murder and arson as well as abuse in the Czech Republic. The group also says Czech Roma are excluded from shops, restaurants, and other public places, and that they suffer a 70 percent unemployment rate. The one-page letter asked Kavan to say how Prague's Social Democratic government plans to deal with the Romany migration from East Central Europe, triggered by violation of their rights at home.
On Monday (Oct. 19) the letter was made public by Romany activists to an audience attending a foreign-policy speech by Kavan at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
In the past two months, 460 Czech Roma have applied for asylum in Britain. During the same period, applications from about 1,600 Slovak Roma were received -- more than in all of 1997.
British politicians and officials say the Roma are economic migrants and not genuine asylum-seekers. But Amanda Sebastian, a publisher who is one of several British voluntary legal advisers to the refugees, says many are genuinely fleeing persecution.
"On February 11, I attended a British court, there was a boy there who was entirely unrepresented. He'd spent his food money on coming to court, and his representative hadn't even bothered to turn up. Myself and a Czech human-rights worker interviewed him. He'd been tied up and covered with petrol and set fire to. He walked with a permanent limp because his leg had never recovered. That was the part which was the worst burnt."
Sebastian says the young Roma testified that the attack was carried out by a neo-Nazi skinhead group. He said he fled to London after his wife, who was also attacked, had a nervous breakdown.
Sebastian also says she has heard testimony from many Roma refugees from the Czech and Slovak republics who said they found themselves personally at risk from racial attacks on themselves and their homes. She said the refugees testified that these attacks were carried out by local people, police officers and members of far-right groups.
The Roma issue overshadowed the visit to Britain this week of Czech President Vaclav Havel and Foreign Minister Kavan. A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said today that Foreign Secretary Robin Cook raised the treatment of Roma with Kavan. He said Kavan acknowledged there was discrimination but said the Czech government was taking steps to deal with it, including through legislation. Cook is said to have welcomed the assurance.
The Roma issue was also briefly raised in a meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Havel but no details are available of what was said.
Earlier this month, Britain imposed visas on Slovak citizens, a move aimed at deterring the Romany influx. Although there is no plan at present to require visas of Czechs, British diplomats warn that it remains an option. Amanda Sebastian says the problem can only be solved by closer attention to the human rights of the Roma.
"We say the British government should not be welcoming or encouraging the Czech government into the EU while their treatment of minorities is still so far behind what the European democratic norm is supposed to be."
Havel has said a solution to the problem lies in improving relations between Czechs and Roma. Czech officials have said they will seek assistance from British local-government authorities with long experience in integrating ethnic communities.