Letter to Finnish Prime Minister

27 September 1999

On September 27, 1999, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the rights of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse, sent a letter to Mr Paavo Lipponen, Prime Minister of Finland, urging his office to invoke all powers available to his office to prevent the return of Romani asylum seekers from Slovakia to the Czech Republic. Copies of the letter were also sent to Finnish Minister of Justice Mr Johannes Koskinen, Interior Minister Mr Kari Häkämies and Mr Matti Saarelainen Director General of the Directorate of Immigration. The text of the ERRC letter follows:

Honourable Prime Minister Lipponen,

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), an international public interest law organisation which monitors the rights of Roma and provides legal defence in cases of human rights abuse, is concerned at reports that Finnish authorities intend to return to the Czech Republic Slovak Romani asylum seekers arriving from the Czech Republic, on the grounds that the latter is a "safe third country".

In late June, over one thousand Roma from Slovakia reportedly arrived in Finland and requested international protection. Despite protest by the ERRC in the form of a letter of appeal sent on June 30 to the Ministry of Interior, Finnish authorities responded by imposing a visa regime on Slovak citizens on July 5, arousing fears that further Slovak Romani refugees may be effectively precluded from access to legitimate asylum procedures in Finland. On July 6 the ERRC sent a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Ms Tarja Halonen to advocate that the visa regime be revoked, as well as to urge that claims by Slovak Roma be considered in accordance with Finland's obligations under the 1951 Convention Pertaining to the Status of Refugees. On July 27, Mr Jarmo Viinanen, Adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, responded to the ERRC with a letter which included 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 prescribed by the Finnish law, the final decision will be taken by an independent Court of Justice."

The ERRC has since been informed that a large number of the above-mentioned Slovak Roma asylum seekers fled from Slovakia via the Czech Republic to Finland. We further understand that the Finnish authorities propose to return these Slovak Roma to the Czech Republic as a safe third country for asylum. The ERRC submits that the Czech Republic should not be regarded as a safe third country with respect to returned Slovak Roma; firstly the asylum procedures in the Czech Republic are inadequate. Secondly, Slovak Roma in the Czech Republic are in danger of being victimised by the discrimination faced by all Roma in the Czech Republic, including the risk of inhuman and degrading treatment and threats to physical safety. As a result of both deficiencies in the asylum system and ingrained racism against Roma, Slovak Roma may be hindered in obtaining access to the asylum procedures.

Asylum procedures in the Czech Republic are presently inadequate. The authorities of at least two European countries have recognised that the Czech Republic does not provide adequate asylum. First of all, in June 1998, the government of the United Kingdom conceded in a case before the High Court that three asylum seekers should not be returned to the Czech Republic as a safe third country because they could not be guaranteed an adequate asylum procedure. Secondly, on June 23, 1999, the Independent Federal Asylum Senate of Austria ruled that the Czech Republic could not be regarded as a safe third country for three reasons:

  1. the time limit relevant to claims for asylum designated to the 'short procedure' was so short as to give rise to concerns over the adequacy of asylum procedures in the Czech Republic;
  2. the Czech Republic could not be deemed a safe third country because of the risk of 'chain expulsion' therein;
  3. although there was a possibility of court review by the Supreme Court against a refusal of refugee status in the Czech Republic, this appeal, by law, did not have suspensive effect on expulsions. There is a danger that a genuine refugee could be refouled in breach of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International have, on a number of occasions raised similar concerns with Czech authorities. Amnesty notes, in a report entitled "Report on Political Refugees: Safe Third Countries (Example: the Czech Republic)", "There might have been some cases of deportation or turning away, especially to the Slovakian Republic."

The ERRC additionally believes that the Czech Republic is not a safe third country of asylum for Slovak Roma because there is generalised discrimination against all Roma, including the risk of inhuman and degrading treatment and threats to physical safety. The Czech Republic has one of the highest rates of racially motivated killing of Roma since 1989 in a country not in the throes of civil war. Numerous documented instances of racially motivated crime against Roma in the Czech Republic can be found on the ERRC internet homepage at www.errc.org. A high number of racially motivated attacks against Roma in the Czech Republic remain without adequate judicial remedy. According to a recent Czech government report, the gravest cases of racially motivated violence in 1998 were the killing of a Romani woman named Helena Biháriová in Vrchlabí in February and the killing of a Romani man named Milan Lacko in Orlová in May. The ERRC notes that in the former case, judicial authorities did not qualify the crime as racially motivated, while in the latter, all convicted perpetrators received suspended sentences.

The ERRC is aware that Finnish authorities state that they have received a commitment from Czech authorities to allow all the Slovak Roma returning to Prague to enter the asylum procedure. The ERRC has not seen written confirmation of such a guarantee. The existence of such a document notwithstanding, the ERRC believes that given widespread xenophobia and racism towards Roma in the Czech Republic, officials cannot uniformly and reasonably be presumed to entertain a claim for asylum from a Slovak Rom.

For all of the reasons delineated above, the ERRC urges your office to invoke all powers available to your office to prevent the return of Romani asylum seekers from Slovakia to the Czech Republic.

Sincerely,

Dimitrina Petrova
Executive Director

Persons wishing to express similar concerns are urged to contact Prime Minister Mr Paavo Lipponen at the fax number: (358 9) 160 22 25

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