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ERRC letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland concerning reintroduction of visa requirement for Slovak citizens

5 September 1999

In late June, reports began to appear in the international press that groups of Roma from Slovakia had arrived in Finland and begun requesting asylum there. On June 30, the ERRC sent an open letter to Mr Kari Häkämies, the Interior Minister of Finland, to call attention to the situation of Roma from Slovakia who have fled to Finland; to urge that Finnish authorities consider claims for asylum by Slovak Roma in accordance with Finland's obligations under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees; and to urge that Finnish authorities not impose a visa regime on Slovak citizens in response to the issue. On July 6, after the Finnish government nevertheless introduced a visa regime on Slovak citizens, the ERRC sent a letter of concern to Ms Tarja Halonen, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland. The text follows:

Dear Madame Minister,

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the human rights situation of Roma in Europe and provides legal defence to victims of abuse, is writing to express its concern at your decision to reintroduce a visa requirement for citizens of the Slovak Republic.

Coming just as hundreds of Romani asylum seekers have reportedly arrived in Finland, the reintroduction of visas for Slovak citizens seems targeted at Roma and motivated by discriminatory intent. We further anticipate that the effect of the new visa regulations will be equally discriminatory - Romani applicants will be refused visas in disproportionate numbers.

Roma living in Slovakia routinely suffer racial and ethnic discrimination and violence. The authorities have repeatedly failed to guarantee the rights of Roma to physical security and equality, and to provide remedy in cases where their rights have been violated. Hate speech against Roma is common. Romani children are often sent to racially segregated schools. Racially-motivated attacks on Roma by skinheads and others are often not investigated properly and impartially. Where prosecution occurs, the authorities frequently overlook or deny the racial animus of crimes. Indeed, a Slovak court recently ruled that racially motivated crime against Roma by ethnic Slovaks is impossible, since they belong to the same race. Despite the change of government last autumn, Romani issues continue to be treated as social problems and not as what they often are - questions of racial discrimination and fundamental human rights. The ERRC is particularly troubled that the Finnish Government, traditionally a strong advocate for Roma rights, has apparently succumbed to the widespread racial stereotypes and anti-Roma sentiment prevalent in much of Europe. The ERRC is concerned that reintroduction of visas by the Finnish Government will serve as a dangerous precedent for other countries and will intensify anti-Roma sentiment within Slovakia. In short, it will only worsen the already precarious plight of Roma in Slovakia.

The ERRC urges the Finnish Government to revoke the visa requirement for Slovak citizens forthwith and to instead devote its efforts to encouraging the Slovak Government to improve the human rights situation of Roma. The ERRC further urges the Government to consider claims for political asylum coming from Slovak Roma in accordance with its obligations under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. The ERRC firmly believes that many Roma from Slovakia may be able to claim persecution on the basis of their ethnicity. In such cases persecution would be the cumulative result of racial discrimination and harassment. For many Roma in Slovakia systematic racial mistreatment begins in early childhood and is a fact in practically all areas of life. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed a similar attitude, concluding in the 1998 Guidelines Relating to the Eligibility of Slovak Roma Asylum Seekers that "it is clear that Slovak Roma may well be able to substantiate refugee claims based on severe discrimination on ethnic grounds".

On July 27, Mr Jarmo Viinanen, Adviser to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, responded to the ERRC letter of July 6. He says, among other things, the following:

Minority rights are among the priority areas of the Finnish human rights policy. In that context, Finland has constantly paid particular attention to the situation of the Roma. I subscribe to the view that the precarious situation of this European minority in various countries of the Central and Eastern Europe gives cause for concern. Finland has given an active contribution towards improving this situation in the various relevant fora and will continue to highlight this issue in the future.

The introduction of a visa requirement for a period of four months was mandated by a sudden arrival of more than a thousand Slovak Roma asylum seekers. When taking this decision, the Finnish government stressed the fact that this is a temporary measure. Furthermore, a high-level Finnish expert on Romani affairs has already visited Slovakia with a view to gaining first-hand information on the situation on the ground.

With regard to the asylum applications, they will all be dealt with individually. As is prescibed by the Finnish law, the final decision will be taken by an independent Court of Justice.

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