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Roma, asylum, and the visa war

5 January 1999

On October 8, 1998, the British government reintroduced a visa requirement for Slovak citizens. This was a reaction to the high number of Slovak Roma who had been seeking asylum in the United Kingdom over the previous months. The British government maintains that these are economic refugees and Jack Straw, the British Home Secretary, justified the decision to reintroduce visas saying, "We are imposing this visa regime because of the abuse of the visa-free arrangements by some passengers from the Slovak Republic".

During the first ten months of 1998, 810 Slovak citizens and 385 Czech citizens sought asylum in the UK, the majority of whom were Roma. This compares to 290 Slovak and 240 Czech asylum seekers in 1997. The number of applications sharply increased during August (230 Slovak and 90 Czech) and remained high throughout September. Most of the Roma were claiming discrimination in all fields of life and many of them claimed to have been beaten up by skinheads.

Although all 125 decisions made on Slovak applicants in the first ten months of 1998 were refusals, 115 of these being certified as "manifestly unfounded" under Section 5.4 (b) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1996 as amended, the Refugee Legal Centre (RLC) reported that about 70% of the appeals they had lodged were allowed by the special adjudicator and only two of the certificates under section 5.4(b) were upheld. Despite this, British officials continue to make statements claiming that the asylum seekers are "bogus". In a Home Office press statement of October 7 related to the Slovak asylum seekers, Mr Straw is quoted as stating that "Britain will always meet its international obligations to offer a safe haven to those persecuted abroad, but we will deal firmly with economic migrants seeking to abuse the asylum system."

Most of the positive appeals decisions concerning Slovak Roma had been appealed by the Home Office and were waiting on the decision of a test case at the Appeals Tribunal concerning a Slovak Rom. A negative decision on this case was handed down on December 4. The justifications for the decision of the tribunal were based on the idea that skinhead attacks were "on the whole isolated and random attacks by thugs", and supported by the concept that the change of government had improved the human rights situation of Roma. The ERRC was able to provide expert evidence to the RLC to support the appeal of this decision, which would have a floodgate effect on other decisions concerning Slovak Roma.

Despite the fact that a significant number of Czech Roma were also seeking asylum, the British government saw no need to reintroduce visas for citizens of the Czech Republic. The Czech government was, however, repeatedly warned by both the British Ambassador and Mr Straw that it must start to do something about the Roma situation or visas would be reintroduced.

Politically speaking, the intention of reintroducing visas for Slovak citizens should be to put pressure on the Slovak government to deal with the situation in Slovakia. However, in reality, it had a negative effect. The Slovak daily SME reported on October 10 that most Slovaks blamed the Roma for the extra hassle and expense involved in obtaining a visa.

On October 15, the Slovak government retaliated by reintroducing visas for British citizens, an act which was declaimed as "mere politics". The visa war continued when, on October 19, the Irish government also reintroduced a visa requirement for Slovak citizens. Although the number of Slovak asylum seekers in Ireland was at the time negligible (sixty-two Slovak applicants in the first ten months of 1998, as compared to 913 Romanians and ninety-seven Poles), the Irish government was obliged to react thus due to an old agreement with the UK. Again, the Slovak government retaliated on October 29.

On October 19, The Guardian reported that the British government's visa regime had been successful: no asylum claims had been lodged since the visa requirement came into effect. However, at the start of November, reports began to appear that Slovak Roma had started to apply for asylum in other European countries, such as Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. On November 5 the Slovak daily Národná Obroda reported that Belgium was also considering reintroducing visas for Slovak citizens, a particularly serious move as Belgium is a signatory to the Schengen agreement. There are no border controls between member countries of the Schengen group, therefore their visa policy should be uniform. According to figures from the Belgian Office des étrangers, the steady stream of Slovak asylum seekers throughout 1998 rose dramatically between July and October (forty applications were received in July, in October this number had risen to 212). However, by this point, the new Slovak government had lifted the visa requirement for British and Irish citizens.

On December 8, British dailies reported the arrival of 103 Romanian Roma from the village of Tandarei. They had arrived illegally, concealed in a freight truck. The forty-two men in the group had been detained, whilst the women and children were being held in a disused hospital ward in Dartford. Twenty-year-old Ms Victoria Nihai reported to The Independent that the Romanian police were "coming to our homes and beating us up. They burned our school and church. They hate gypsies." There was a conflict between Roma and non-Roma in Tandarei in January 1997; however, the police had resolved this conflict. The Independent also reported that the right wing political organisation the National Front had marched through Dartford just the day before the Romanians arrived, protesting against the rise in immigration. (ERRC, The Guardian, The Independent, Národná Obroda, Refugee Legal Centre, Radio Prague, SME, UK Home Office, UNHCR)

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