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Czech Republic: U.K. Resumes Controversial Immigration Controls In Prague

British officials today restarted controversial immigration controls at Prague's main airport in an effort to stem the growing number of Czech asylum applicants to Britain -- most of whom are Roma. The screening procedure originally started in July but was suspended after criticism from human rights groups and opposition political parties. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman, whose cabinet approved the resumption of controls, says it is the only alternative if the Czech Republic wants to avoid the reimposition of British visas. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 27 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As with most other countries, everyone entering Great Britain is subject to having their documents checked on arrival.

But the idea that British officials can weed out "undesirables" before they even depart from their home country raises sensitive questions of sovereignty and human rights -- especially when that home country lies at the heart of Europe and is a leading contender for EU membership.

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman says his cabinet's decision to allow such a move serves the interests of most Czechs, as it avoids the risk of having British visas reimposed. But as the British pre-boarding screenings at Prague's airport demonstrated in July, the policy makes it practically impossible for Czech passport holders who are Roma to get a seat on a flight to London. During the three weeks the checks were in place, 120 Czech citizens, almost all of them Roma, were prevented from leaving for Britain.

Petr Uhl, who until recently headed the Czech government's office for human rights, tells RFE/RL that in his mind, it is clear the new immigration controls discriminate against Czech Roma by saddling them with a presumption of guilt. And unfortunately, the majority of Czechs, and by extension the Czech government, simply do not care.

"The interests of the majority, the legitimate interests of the majority -- meaning the attempt to prevent the introduction of British visas -- were so strong that the interests of the minority were forgotten. And this has deepened the gulf which exists between the Roma and the majority population."

There is a precedent for what the British are doing in Prague. In 1991, London and Paris signed a protocol permitting the establishment of frontier controls by France at Cheriton in Kent and by the United Kingdom at Coquelles in France. The protocol also regulated the exercise of frontier controls on trains between the U.K. and France. Last year, the two countries signed an agreement extending those controls, to allow British customs officials to operate at the Gare du Nord train station in central Paris.

But in practice, there is an important difference. The French and British controls tend to filter out citizens of third countries trying to immigrate to either France or Britain. But at issue in the Czech Republic is whether certain Czech passport holders are being discriminated against based on their ethnicity and with the tacit approval of their own government.

In July, a pair of reporters from Czech Television, working undercover, attempted to expose what they charged was racial discrimination on the part of British officials. Both presented themselves at the immigration control desk with identical cover stories of why they wanted to visit Britain. Both carried identical amounts of money and a Czech passport. One of the reporters was a Rom, the other was not. The Romany reporter was refused while his colleagues was allowed to proceed onto the plane.

Richard Samko, the reporter of Romany origin, charged racism. But his call was dismissed by both British officials and the Czech Foreign Ministry as an unfounded provocation. Samko was contacted by RFE/RL for his point of view on the reimposition of immigration checks, but he declined to comment.

Pavel Bilek, deputy director of the Czech Helsinki Committee, hesitates to charge either side with racism. But he says there is little question that many Czech Roma face prejudice at home and occasional attacks by right-wing thugs, prompting increasing numbers to want to leave the country. And he adds that the Czech government is doing little to try to address the issue. Instead of treating the symptoms, it is trying to apply a band-aid cure.

"At the core of the problem is the Czech government's inability to systematically resolve the Romany question."

Because Roma make up just two to three percent of the Czech population, their problems and concerns mean little to politicians, says Uhl. Much needs to be done, but the impetus is lacking.

"We need major reforms here and in Slovakia even more so, especially as regards gypsy (Roma) ghettoes there. We need major changes. But no Czech government up to now has had the courage for this."

Uhl says the Czech government, even if it did have the will, does not have the budget to initiate such an ambitious program. But he faults the Foreign Ministry for failing to obtain funds from abroad.

"The European Union should be called upon and we should demand effective help from it for social programs which have to do with education, employment, and housing for Roma -- these three things. This has not happened. The Foreign Ministry is partly to blame for this."

It's clear that even with the best of intentions and the highest of budgets, it would take years to bridge the psychological, educational, and economic chasm between Czech Roma and other citizens. Until then, Czechs wishing to travel to the UK may have to contend with the inconvenient and possibly discriminatory border controls.

(Lucie Vopalenska of the Czech Service contributed to this report.)