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U.K.: Tough New Asylum Law Affects Roma From Europe

Britain's tough new Immigration and Asylum law, which went into effect six weeks ago, is making it particularly difficult for Romany (Gypsy) refugees to remain in the country. In part 3 of a series of reports on the new law and its effects on asylum-seekers, RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato profiles the Czech Roma asylum-seekers in Britain.

London, 17 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Several women sit on the grass watching their children on a London playground on a Saturday morning. At first glance, it seems a common enough scene.

Except that the women -- of different ages, but all wearing colorful floral headscarves -- appear distinctly nervous. They anxiously monitor their five poorly-dressed children, who are laughing and shouting as they play. The women seem to be waiting for someone to come and ask them to leave. The children seem aware of their mothers' uneasiness. They stay close by and don't seek to play with anyone else.

The women and their children are Roma, freshly arrived in Britain and afraid of any confrontation. When our correspondent tries to talk to them, they call their children and hurry away.

The debate over asylum-seekers is a hot issue in Britain today, after the introduction on April 1 of a new law aimed at curbing the number of people coming to seek political asylum. A heated political debate is under way on how to distinguish those who are truly fleeing persecution from those who simply seek a better living standard.

Last week, church leaders and aid organizations berated British Immigration Minister Barbara Roche for what they charged was the new law's unfair treatment of asylum-seekers. Roman Catholic Bishop Patrick O'Donaghue singled out for criticism provisions that require asylum seekers to be housed in remote areas of the country, that set up many detention camps for those thought likely to flee, that introduce a voucher -- rather than cash -- system to provide them with food and other necessities. The bishop said those measures risk fuelling racism and xenophobia.

Refugee-support agencies are concerned that groups such as the Roma -- who come largely from the Czech and Slovak republics -- are an easy target for discrimination. Amanda Sebastian is the coordinator of Europe-Roma, a non-governmental organization established two years ago by a Romany refugee. She says such discrimination easily leads to racist violence:

"There are an infinite numbers of threats, but leading them at the moment is the threat of inciting the ordinary British population to attacks on asylum-seekers -- and particularly attacks on identifiable Roma asylum-seekers. We [have] heard of a family in Walthamstow [in North London] that has been attacked three times. Over the [May 1] holiday, we heard of attacks in Middlesbourgh, Manchester, Dover, and Enfield (London). These are just the attacks that our small organization hears about. These are just the lucky people who have our phone number and can report them."

The mass-circulation British daily "Sun" has called the Roma "gypsy scroungers" and criticized what it -- and Conservative opposition politicians -- describe as the "soft-touch" immigration policies of Tony Blair's Labor government. The equally popular "Daily Mirror" newspaper has published articles about what it calls "baby-toting Romanian beggars." In apparent response, Home Office official Paul Boateng said that what he called "aggressive" begging by East European Roma would now be "unacceptable" in Britain.

Vojtech Sliska, chairman of the London-based Roma Refugee Organization, says the media campaign and the government's response to it was a "real disaster." In a matter of weeks, he says, they wiped out the efforts of several years to create a climate of better understanding for the Roma in Britain. The unbalanced media coverage, he adds, has only helped persuade much of the British public that the Roma refugees are "bogus" asylum-seekers.

According to Sliska -- himself an asylum-seeker -- this is not the case. He says it is persecution in their native lands that brought some 4,000 Roma to Britain from the Czech and Slovak republics in the past two years:

"The Czech Republic [claims that has] made progress [in] human rights. [But] the Roma every day [are] coming and applying for asylum. We speak with them, with new arrivals, and they all claim that they escaped persecution in the Czech Republic."

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Czech Embassy spokeswoman Zuzana Bluehova dismissed the charge. She said flatly that the Czech government "does not have a policy of persecution." But Bluehova also said that the Czech government "recognizes that there is a problem of xenophobia and racism against the Romany minority."

The problems with Roma, she explained, have been growing for many years and cannot be resolved overnight. But she added that Czech state institutions are working together with Romany organizations to find a solution.

Asylum-seekers from the Czech and the Slovak republics make up the largest Romany group currently in Britain. According to Amanda Sebastian of Europe-Roma, the first groups of East European Roma came from Poland in 1995. Today, she says, there are some 400 Roma from Romania, most of them part of a large clan from an area near Bucharest.

Altogether, Sebastian says, the most recent official figures put the number of Roma who have been registered as entering Britain at 5,000. But, she adds, it is unclear whether the figure reflects the number of people currently in Britain or includes those who came but were immediately deported. Under Britain's tough new regulations, asylum-seekers who are quickly classified as "bogus" can be deported within a week.

According to Sebastian, Romany asylum-seekers are often initially placed in detention centers. That -- together with a drastic reduction in the number of British lawyers doing immigration work -- makes it increasingly difficult for Roma to obtain legal representation:

"The vast majority [of Roma asylum-seekers] are being sent to the new detention center at Oakington [in southern England] -- which is largely Roma, with a few Kosovars and other European refugees. [Their requests for asylum have been determined] to be manifestly unfounded before they even come to the court, before the court even has a chance to see them. And this makes it particularly difficult for the lawyer, because the so-called reforms [that is, new regulations,] mean that their firms will lose a great deal of money if they take a risk on a client who might have less than a 50 percent chance of success."

Sebastian says that when Roma can present their case in court with the assistance of a committed lawyer, their chances of having their asylum claims approved usually increase considerably. But the new law discourages lawyers from taking many asylum cases.