Borders, visas and asylum
15 July 1999
Finnish and international media reported on June 29 that large numbers of Slovak Roma had recently come to Finland to seek protection in the country. According to the Immigration Unit at the Ministry of Labour, 380 Slovak Roma arrived in Finland seeking asylum between June 24 and June 28, while another 200 Slovaks had sought asylum in the country between January 1999 and this date. The currently 580 Roma were being housed in reception centres until their claims could be considered. Only forty-one Slovak citizens applied for asylum in Finland in 1998, and no such applications were received in 1997. On July 6, the international press reported that Finland had imposed a visa regime on Slovak citizens.
On March 28, British immigration officials detained the Czech Romani activist Ivan Veselý for about three hours at Heathrow airport in London for questioning before allowing him to enter the United Kingdom to attend an English course, according to testimony given to the ERRC by Mr Veselý. Officials accused Mr Veselý of travelling with a false passport. They regarded as unconvincing e-mails showing that he had been invited to an English course and only allowed him to enter the country when a representative of the language school who was waiting to meet him was brought in to vouch for Mr Veselý. In other news pertaining to treatment of civilians at British borders, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a report on its visit to the United Kingdom concerning the detention of immigrants and asylum seekers. The areas of concern raised by the report included the suggestion that there was arbitrary deprivation of liberty, that persons were detained or released due to availability of space rather than the quality of their case, that there was a lack of adequate access to judicial remedy upon detention, and that there were no written guidelines outlining the procedure to be used. Reports from persons working with Romani asylum seekers in the UK confirm these statements. Moreover, they suggest that the decision to detain Romani asylum seekers is not arbitrary, but part of efforts to discourage further arrivals and encourage voluntary departure.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on May 18 that the British ambassador in Prague had, according to the Czech daily Pravo, warned the Czech Interior Minister that Britain may impose a visa requirement on the Czech Republic after a rise in the number of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom from the Czech Republic. However, on May 19, Radio Prague reported that the British Home Office had issued a statement to the effect that the introduction of visas for Czech citizens was not imminent. The majority of Czech asylum seekers in the United Kingdom are Roma. 225 applications for asylum were received from Czech citizens in the first three months of 1999, compared to 515 in the whole of 1998, and 240 in 1997. The number of Slovak Roma seeking asylum in the United Kingdom reduced dramatically after the British government imposed a visa requirement on Slovak citizens in October 1998 - only fifteen Slovak citizens claimed asylum in the United Kingdom in the first three months of 1999, compared to 115 in October 1998 alone.
The Canadian daily The Globe and Mail reported on May 1 that Canada was considering lifting the visa requirement imposed on Czech citizens in 1997 after a wave of mostly Romani asylum seekers from the Czech Republic arrived in Canada. Canadian officials continue to recognise that Czech applicants, who are mostly Romani, have a reasonable fear of persecution: in the first three months of 1999, of 65 decisions taken by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) on applications for asylum from Czech nationals, 36 were positive. The number of Czech applicants for asylum declined from 1222 in 1997 to 177 in 1998 and only eleven in the first three months of 1999. According to The Globe and Mail, the Czech government argues that this reduction shows that the situation in the Czech Republic has improved. Romani groups in the Czech Republic state that the decline in the number of Roma seeking asylum in Canada is due primarily to the visa regime.
In the first three months of 1999, 618 applications for asylum in Canada from Hungarian nationals were referred to the IRB. Of 211 decisions taken on Hungarian applicants in the same period, 25 were positive. The Canadian press has reported that Romani asylum seekers are falling victim to crime. The Toronto Star reported on April 29 that unknown persons robbed a family of Hungarian Romani refugees staying in a motel in Scarborough, 20 kilometres north-east of Toronto centre. The attackers allegedly gained entry posing as police officers, forced the family to the floor and then searched them. They then reportedly made off with some 1000 Canadian dollars (approximately 645 euros) worth of jewellery and cash.
On March 20, a group of protesters gathered outside the Department of Justice's buildings in Dublin, Ireland to protest against the Government's treatment of recent asylum seekers, including Romanian Roma. According to Government figures, the number of Romanians seeking asylum in Ireland remained high in the first months of 1999, with a total of 262 applications from Romanian citizens, including Roma, until April 30, 1999. Between November 1998 and April 1999, a coalition of ten human rights organisations in France held an interactive exhibition in northern Paris to familiarise the public with the situation and experiences of asylum seekers in France, The Guardian reported. One of the refugees taking part was a 23-year-old Slovak Romani girl who had spent three years in France, living in a refugee centre and making repeated appeals after her initial asylum application was rejected, before gaining refugee status.
Meanwhile, in a survey carried out in Hungary by the Centre for International Migration and Refugee Research and published in the Hungarian daily Népszabadság on March 11, 27% of respondents would close the borders to all asylum seekers. Some 58% believe that the Government should carefully consider whom it accepts as a refugee, and the same group would unconditionally deny entry to all Roma, as well as five other ethnic groups singled out - Chinese, Bosnians, Russians, Romanians and Arabs.
(ERRC, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Irish Times, Népszabad-ság, Radio Prague, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Toronto Star)