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Czech Republic: British Customs Officials At Prague Airport Seen As Targeting Roma

Britain has, for the first time ever, dispatched customs officials to a foreign airport -- Prague -- in an effort to weed out bogus asylum-seekers. The Czech government says it is going along with the program, partially out of fear Britain may demand visas for its citizens if it doesn't. Despite British assurances to the contrary, Czech Roma say the program is targeted at them and therefore racist. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky reports.

Prague, 23 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The new British customs post installed at Prague's Ruzyne airport has angered Josef Facuna, the chairman of the Czech Republic's Roma Civic Initiative.

He says: "We're shocked by the situation. We're in a democratic state, and I'm traveling as a Czech, not as a Rom."

The president of the International Roma Union, Emil Scuka, says he has sent protest letters to both the British and Czech governments. He is also seeking a meeting with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan. Scuka says that "shortcomings in the British asylum system can't be solved at the expense of the human rights of free Czech citizens, who are on their own territory, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of a foreign state."

Analysts say Czech Roma are particularly unhappy with the Czech government's acquiescence in the scheme, which in their view underscores the mistrust and misunderstanding between Czechs and Roma. The Roma also complain of widespread discrimination and lack of employment opportunities in the Czech Republic, and suffer as well from frequent attacks from the country's growing skinhead movement.

David Broucher, the British ambassador to the Czech Republic, says the measure was needed to stem what he describes as "the systematic abuse of our immigration and asylum system by some Czech citizens." More than 1,235 Roma from the Czech Republic claimed asylum in Britain last year. The figure for the first six months of this year was more than 620. British officials say the real number of asylum-seekers is much higher because the statistics take account only of "principal asylum-seekers"-- that is, heads of families.

Britain has rejected most Czech asylum-seekers, believing they are not fleeing persecution at home but merely seeking better jobs or higher welfare payments in Britain. Ambassador Boucher explains:

"Requests for asylum from the Czech Republic are always rejected. Only in a few cases was asylum granted on the basis of a request."

But lengthy British appeals procedures mean that asylum-seekers and their dependents often become expensive burdens for the government or slip away to remain in the country as illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, some 1,160 Czech Roma were repatriated last year.

British Embassy spokesman Zbynek Havranek rejects criticism that the British move targets Czech Roma.

"The measures at Prague airport are normal customs control measures, which are not discriminatory because [customs officials] must check all travelers to Britain without regard to nationality. They check Czech citizens, and British citizens, EU citizens -- simply everyone from Prague flying directly to Britain."

But critics note that of the first 25 travelers rejected by British customs officials in the program's first two days, all but one -- a Polish backpacker-- were Czech Roma.

Resentment toward Czech Roma has been on the rise in Britain since the first wave of Roma asylum-seekers arrived there a few years ago. A similar Roma exodus to Canada in 1997 prompted Ottawa to demand that all Czechs traveling to Canada hold visas, souring relations between the two countries. Belgium resorted to the same tactic after Roma from Slovakia started arriving there in large numbers.

Czech officials say that, in order to avert a "visa war" with Britain, they were left with few options. "Our main goal was to prevent the imposition of visas on Czech citizens," said Foreign Minister Kavan in explaining why the Czechs gave the go-ahead to the British customs checks, which was part of a bilateral agreement signed five months ago.

Spokesman Havranek says it is unclear just how long British customs officials will be vetting British-bound travelers at Ruzyne airport.

"We, unfortunately, don't know exactly how long it will continue. We don't have any set schedule, or a date up to which time these measures will remain in effect. But, these steps are temporary and we hope, short-term."

Petr Uhl, a former top Czech human rights official, says the Czech government had no right to allow British officials to operate on Czech soil. He says:

"It is discriminatory. A Czech citizen can leave his country at any time and no foreign departments can stop him. Only a law can restrict this right -- not an agreement."

This is not the first time that the British and Czechs have cooperated in halting Roma emigration to Britain. Two years ago, personnel of the Czech national airline CSA were caught noting on "G" lists passengers resembling Roma who were boarding flights to Britain. The lists were then passed on to British immigration officials, in what some critics called a system of "racial profiling."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.