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U.K.: New Immigration And Asylum Law Hurts Genuine Refugees

Britain introduced tough new rules for asylum seekers last month. Refugee agencies say they're concerned the new Immigration and Asylum Act will discourage asylum-seekers without caring enough for their needs. In the second part of her report on the new regulations, RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato profiles two asylum seekers who entered Britain under the old rules.

London, 5 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Safir is a 28-year-old Bosnian who has been living legally as a refugee in Britain for more than seven years. Many who fled war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s would say he has been very lucky.

Safir left his country in 1992 and, after several months in Croatia and in Switzerland, arrived in London with a tourist visa. As part of a British government decision to give Bosnians temporary protection, he received refugee status and was able to remain.

Safir recalls he made the decision to leave Bosnia quite abruptly:

"It wasn't something that was the result of long deliberation, of research. It was made more or less on the spur of the moment, as far as I am concerned. I probably decided to leave the country within a week -- in the anticipation of the armed conflict in central Bosnia between Croat and Muslim forces, where I realized that Bosnia was going to be shut down completely in a matter of weeks."

Safir -- who trained as a journalist in Bosnia -- now works for a refugee agency in London. He's one of more than 8,000 Bosnian refugees who live in Britain today. In many ways, his case is typical of those who have successfully attained British refugee status.

Safir chose to come to Britain because he had a few acquaintances in London, spoke some English and realized he would have better opportunities there than in other European countries, like Switzerland.

Even so, the beginning was tough. Asylum seekers cannot legally work in Britain for six months after they arrive, and Safir says the government offers little help for refugees trying to make a new life. He improved his English in a local pub, and relied on acquaintances to help him get his first job, as a volunteer translator at a London refugee agency. Everything, he says, depended on personal connections.

That's one of the reasons refugees and refugee-support agencies are concerned about Britain's Immigration and Asylum Act, which went into effect five weeks ago (April 1). Under the new act, asylum-seekers can no longer choose where they go once they arrive in Britain. Safir says that could mean they will end up in a place where they don't know anyone and have no support.

Safir believes the new asylum bill is part of a trend toward keeping refugees out of Britain, and pressuring those who are there to leave as soon as possible. He also believes that whether a particular group of refugees is accepted depends on how their situation is portrayed in the media.

"There seems to be discrimination between so-called -- shall we say 'good' refugees? -- and so-called 'bad' refugees, depending on the political interest of the time. I can definitely say that the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo were highly profiled in the media and received a quite warm welcome from the UK population and the public. Whereas, some others -- like Roma (gypsy) refugees from various European countries -- have been portrayed as 'scroungers' and people who come here to take jobs and to take benefits."

Oksana is one of the asylum seekers who fears she will be labeled a "bad refugee" and sent back home to Belarus. The 37-year-old music teacher ended up in London last year, after a four-day trip hidden in the back of a truck with her 13-year-old daughter, Katya.

Oksana and her husband Alyaksandr sold their property and paid a dealer and his partner $6,000 to smuggle them to any European country they could get to:

"I don't know which borders we crossed, because we were sitting in a closed [space. The driver] had a sort of room specially carved, since clearly he was used to transporting people. I had a lamp, we had some food and there was a bio-toilet. Essentially, no one spoke to us [during the trip] because, as I understand, the vehicle was sealed. We were sitting in the vehicle like moles. We even lost the sense of time. [The driver] looked in twice. He asked how we were doing. We said everything was fine. He brought us water, because we were thirsty."

Oksana says she and her family left Belarus because they could no longer stand being harassed by the police. She says the harassment started after she resisted her employer's efforts to remove her from her job. Within a few months, she eventually lost her job, and a former secret service officer -- one of her employer's colleagues -- shot her in the hand. The police demanded she undergo psychiatric expertise. She says her entire family was traumatized.

Still, she says she's concerned her family's asylum claim will not succeed, because Belarus has not attracted much media attention or public sympathy. As a result, she says, most people assume she is an economic refugee who doesn't deserve asylum. But she and husband strongly want to find work in Britain.

"I really hope that at some stage I'll be able to teach music to children. My husband hopes he will work. He's studying English very actively. [My daughter] Katya is trying her best in her studies. She would like to go to university and become a dentist. But after the [new] law was enforced, I have the feeling that England may simply not need more new people. This is the feeling I have, and somehow I think that I don't know, but I have very little hope."

Oksana and her family likely won't know their fate for some time. They've been in Britain for less than a year, but most refugee decisions take a year-and-a-half. Under the new law, if Oksana's family is refused, they will only have one chance to appeal. If that fails, they will be forced to return to Belarus and, she fears, a life of never-ending harassment and persecution.