Field report: Britain and France
02 April 1998
In the wake of the sudden burst of media and political activity surrounding Czech Roma refugees in Britain, I travelled to Paris, Calais, Dover and London between November 14 and 18 with a group of Romani and human rights activists from the Czech Republic. The first goal of the four-day trip was to present to the press, the public and officials in France and Britain the fact that Roma in the Czech and Slovak Republics are exposed to racism and discrimination, often in institutionalised or semi-institutionalised form. In particular, we were keen to make the point that the migration of Roma from these countries cannot be dismissed as merely ‘economic’. The second goal of the mission was to carry out fact-finding, and in particular to try to understand such areas of confused reporting as: a) the living conditions of Roma in Calais and in Dover; b) the official French line both on Roma entering France (rumours that coaches were being checked on the French-German border) and on Roma being allowed transit through France; c) the actual nature of the asylum procedure being proposed by Britain, and whether anything unusual/ specific is being applied to Roma; d) the rumoured ways in which Roma are being denied access to Britain at all; and e) the existence or non-existence of condemnations of anti-Roma activities in both countries, with particular attention to the permission given to the National Front (an extremist right-wing organisation in the UK) to mach in Dover on November 15.
The decision for a Czech/Slovak delegation to visit France and England was made at the meeting of the International Coordinating Committee of Helsinki Citizens’ Asembly (HCA) in Prague, the Assemblée Européenne des Citoyens in France and European Dialogue in Britain. All these organisations are member organisaations of HCA. The trip was also to include a brief intervention at the „Racism in Europe” conference organised by Forum Alternatives Européennes (FAE) in Paris. Ivan Veselý of the Romani Democratic congress (RDK), was entrusted with the selection of Romani representatives from the Czech Republic and from Slovakia. The ERRC also participated in the trip. The group included: Elena Červeňáková, Roma Civil Initiative (a Czech NGO); David Chirico, European Roma Rights Center; Ilona Férková, Fund for Understanding and Hope (FPN); Andrea Gonová, Slovak HCA; Karel Holomek, HCA Roma Section; Ján Kompus, Slovak Roma Civil Initiative; Hilda Pasová, Roma Civil Initiative; Dr Emil Ščuka, Roma Civil Initiative; Jan Sterec, Jewish Community of Prague; and Václav Trojan, Czech HCA.
The group was accompanied by the three members of a television crew called Epicentrum, which is preparing a documentary about the trip. The Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic and the President of the Council for Nationalities were informed by letter of our trip.
PARIS, 15 NOVEMBER
Dr Emil Ščuka and Ján Kompuš spoke briefly at a plenary session of the „Racism in Europe” conference and they described the situation of Roma not only in the Czech and Slovak Republics but in the whole of Europe. They stressed that there is a serious level of racism and discrimination in the Czech and Slovak Republics and that it is in the interest of alt European states to address this problem. They pointed out that if the situation in former Eastern Bloc countries does not improve before the enlargement of the European Union, the ‘Romani problem’ will become one for the whole Union. Western European nations must place pressure on nations like the Czech and Slovak Republics to improve their record on Roma rights. Participants at the conference were then invited to meet the Czech/Slovak delegation informally. This invitation was taken up by many, including: Charles Fiterman, president of the FAE, former Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister 19811984; Louis Joinet, member of the French High Court of Appeal (Cour de Cassation) and of the Permanent Subcommission for Human Rights at the United Nations in Geneva; Danielle Mittérand, president of Fondation France Liberté and former First Lady of France; Alain Obadia, counsellor to Martine Aubry, Minister of Labour and Solidarity; Ronald Mérieux, member of Fondation France Liberté and former counsellor to President Mittérand, and Bernard Dréano, president of the Assemblée Européenne des Citoyens (AEC). No one at the conference was able to offer specific information about the situation of the Roma in Calais, other than the general opinion that even if they were admitted to the asylum procedure they would not receive asylum. It was, however, stressed by the delegation that since the Roma do not currently wish to return; they should be treated with respect and education should be provided for their children.
CALAIS, 15 NOVEMBER
Unexpectedly, local organisations had organised a lecture on the history and culture of Roma, attended by alt of the Calais refugees, locals and journalists. Emil Ščuka and Václav Trojan then spoke at the meeting to present the aims of the mission and to try to remove suspicions that we had been sent by the Czech government to persuade the refugees that they should return. All of the refugees made it clear that they did not want to return home and the meeting was extremely heated at first, but an atmosphere of trust gradually developed. After meeting with the refugees, most of the group spent the night in the houses of local volunteers.
The Roma in Calais gave detailed information about what had happened to them, both in the Czech Republic and while attempting to claim asylum in Britain. There were about forty Roma in Calais: approximately sixteen adults and twenty-four children. One Romani man said that he himself had been attacked, and his father, Mr A.B., beaten by a group of seventeen skinheads in Brno, resulting in serious injuries and hospitalisation. Other Roma also claimed that they and their families had been subjected to racist attacks. Several of the Roma at the old-people’s home confirmed that after their arrival in Dover, on October 16, and after showing passports and filling in some forms (presumably the standard Department of Immigration entry forms for non-EU citizens) they were shown into a waiting room where the men were left while their wives and children taken away. On October 17 at about 10 p.m. the men were placed in police custody, where they were left for three days. After three days, an official from the immigration office came with an interpreter. The Romani men told the interpreter that they were seeking asylum. The official then left and subsequently returned without the interpreter but with a form; she told the Roma where to sign it. After signing the form (which, they assumed, from their previous conversation through the interpreter, was a request for asylum), they were placed in a bus where they saw their wives and children again. They assumed they were being taken into England somewhere, but in fact were placed on the boat and sent back to Calais.
The Roma in Calais have been given no copies of the documents they signed in England. If their allegations are true, the British authorities not only kept them in detention for several days without explanation and failed to provide them with adequate interpreting, but also denied them access to the asylum procedure without justification or explanation. These alleged abuses are serious, and must be clarified.
In addition, we heard that there were cases of bus-drivers forcing people they thought were Roma to get off the bus in Calais, even though the people had tickets to England. (Later, in Dover, we heard of a case in which Roma were allegedly removed from the bus on the Czech-German frontier.) Local humanitarian organisations in Calais, together with individuals, are helping the refugees in various ways. The sub-prefecture of Calais has enabled them to stay in a home for the elderly. The refugees have two months remaining of their normal tourists’ stay in France.
DEAL, 16 NOVEMBER
On Sunday morning the delegation moved from Calais to Dover, England, where we were met by the acting Chief Immigration Officer. He denied that there was any special treatment of Romani applicants for asylum, but was unable to comment specifically on the claims of the Roma in Calais or on the total number of applicants so far. The original plan, to meet with local MP Gwyn Prosser in Dover, was changed, and we were sent to the nearby town of Deal, where a group of about thirty Roma are living. In Deal we were met by Ben Bano, local councillor and chair of the Asylum-Seekers’ Support Group, along with other members of the group. They explained to us that the Roma in Deal were very nervous about meeting us, again fearing that we had come either as spies for the Czech government or to persuade asylum-seekers to return. The meeting was attended by Karel Holomek (Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, Roma Section), and Peter Mercer of the UK Gypsy Council.
The local MP, Gwyn Prosser, was also present. Prosser explained the antipathy towards Roma in Dover in terms of both the town’s relatively high unemployment and of the British asylum laws. The latter require asylum-seekers to apply immediately upon arrival in the country, and to receive benefits at the point of application, effectively loading the national burden of support for asylum-seekers upon a few local authorities. The temporary housing in Dover is therefore swamped. He described some of the complaints made by local inhabitants against the Roma, which ranged from shop-lifting to noisiness and intimidation. (I later discovered from the local police, however, that no crime committed by Roma was currently under investigation; Prosser seems to have been giving voice to fears of ‘Gypsy criminality’ as unhampered by factual accuracy as those often encountered elsewhere in Europe.) Prosser declared, on the other hand, that it was necessary to respect international conventions and government immigration laws and that Britain was determined to offer asylum to those who were genuinely fleeing oppression and violence. He said that he was moved by how grateful the Roma in Deal were for the relatively small help that had been offered to them, and welcomed the idea of Romani cultural activities to give a positive image of Roma to the public. We were, however, concerned to discover that in the period of more than a month since the ‘Romani exodus’ scare had begun, Prosser had not met a single Romani applicant; this, coupled with his reluctance to see us (or be seen with us) in Dover itself, suggested to us, unfortunately, that his commitment to a more fair asylum procedure was for our ears only.
This impression was later heightened when I was given a copy of an article Prosser had written for the local press, in which he repeated comments by Minister for Immigration Mike O’Brien that alt evidence suggested that the majority of the asylum claims were ‘bogus’. It is hard to imagine what ‘evidence’ for this Prosser and O’Brien might have come across, and harder stilt to imagine on what grounds they presume to pre-empt individual decisions by making a collective evaluation. In his article, Prosser also regretted that „under laws inherited from the previous government, we are obliged to consider every claim individually”. It is surprising to see a Member of Parliament regretting the fact that British domestic law conforms to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and suggesting that the individual consideration of asylum claims is a hindrance to justice. Minister O’Brien’s press releases have been even more frank. Referring in September to claims submitted by „some Eastern European nationals”, he explained: „There appears to be a seasonal pattern reflecting the lack of jobs in their home countries. Local councils are put under serious pressure to house and support applicants whilst their meritless claims for asylum are dealt with.” And in August, „it is clear that organised criminal rackets are increasingly behind [...] abuse of the asylum procedures”. Quite what ‘criminal rackets’ are required in order for Czech or Slovak Roma to buy a coach ticket and travel legally to England is not at all clear to me, but given that Minister O’Brien prejudges cases as ‘meritless’, Gwyn Prosser should probably not fear that his government’s offices will ‘consider every claim individually’. Prosser came with the delegation to visit a group of Roma in Deal, who have been found accommodation by the Asylum-Seekers’ Support Group.
The living conditions for the thirty or so Roma in Deal were excellent, the attitude of locals friendly, and the Roma were in daily contact with the support group. Some of the children had started to go to school, and both children and adults were trying to learn English. We spoke to a Czech Romani family from North Bohemia and two families from East Slovakia, who asked us not to publish their names for fear of problems in their home countries. One Romani man said to me, „It’s fine here. We can go into all the shops with our children and no one ever insults us or says ‘Get out, you Gypsies!’ like they do back home.” All the Roma in Deal stated that they had experienced racial hatred in the Czech and Slovak Republics; some showed us scars from racially-motivated attacks and claimed that for the first time in their lives they were in an environment where they were treated with basic respect. But old fears die hard: one woman said that she was still frightened to let her children play out alone when there were non-Roma around.
DOVER, 16 NOVEMBER
In Dover, we visited a number of Romani families living in a privately run hotel. The atmosphere was less buoyant than in Deal, partly because of the less pleasant living conditions, and partly because of the memory of the racist demonstration which had taken place in the town the day before. While only about sixty National Front activists had actually come to the town, and had then been quickly chased off by a larger number of anti-racist demonstrators, the Roma were nonetheless confused by the day’s events, and shocked to see the all too familiar forms of skinheads. The forty or so Roma in the hotel felt particularly vulnerable because several of the men from the group had been placed in detention immediately after applying for asylum. At the time of our visit, this group of Roma had been in England for about a month, and did not understand why their husbands and fathers were still in Rochester prison. Only one man in the hotel had been released, on health grounds, and even that was following several days in detention.
Several other families were waiting for bail hearings: at the request of two women, I spoke to the London-based Refugee Legal Centre, who were representing some of the Czech and Slovak Roma at their asylum and bail hearings. The Refugee Legal Centre had been informed in turn by the Detention Advisory Service, a welfare institution which provides legal advice in Rochester prison once a week, that there were at least forty Czech and Slovak Romani detainees. According to British law, applicants for asylum can be placed in detention if there is reasonable doubt that they will not comply with the asylum procedure. In the case of the Czech and Slovak Roma, the reasoning given for detentions was, according to the Refugee Legal Centre, unusually weak. A first argument runs that the applicant has been given a negative decision in a first asylum tribunal, or knows that his claim is weak, and that because he knows his claim is likely to be refused he has no incentive to comply with the procedure. This argument not only seems to pre-empt a negative decision, but also seems quite arbitrary in the case of the Czech and Slovak Roma. In fact, only 4% of all asylum applicants in Britain are successful, and so the ‘likelihood of refusal’ argument could be applied to everyone. A second argument is weaker still: if the applicant has complained of harassment in his home country, he is probably not intending to return, and therefore may not comply with the asylum procedure. This argument could, of course, be applied to any genuine asylum seeker; people who seek asylum should not be expected to want to return home.
The weakness of the arguments for detention suggests that it is being used rather as a deterrent to future arrivals than as a response to individual applications. On the basis of such arguments, chief applicants (male heads of families who had included their dependants on their application form) were detained. However, the poor quality of the arguments for detention has made it easier for lawyers to obtain bail for their clients, and it seems that since mid-November the majority of Romani men have, in fact, returned to their families. The families in Dover, who were not receiving the same intensive voluntary help as those in Deal, were having to cope with the complicated process of registering for benefits and income support. While they agreed that the social workers and other advisors have been helpful, it was clear that there were still problems in giving the Roma adequate information about what was happening to them. One woman we spoke to, for example, was convinced that she had been given a year’s residence permit when in fact she had only received a conditional entitlement to housing benefit. Again, the Dover Roma we met complained of varying degrees of racist violence and discrimination at home; unlike those in Deal they also cited specific examples of hostility in England. This hostility, however, had not resulted in any physical violence.
LONDON, 16-17 NOVEMBER
The delegation met MP for Islington North Jeremy Corbyn, vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Subcommittee for Human Rights. Mr Corbyn heard accounts of the problems of racial discrimination and racist violence in the Czech and Slovak Republics, of the failure of the police and judiciary to protect Roma against violence, and of legislation and practices which have the character of institutionalised discrimination (the Czech Citizenship Law, discriminatory housing policies, the disproportionate allocation of Romani children to special schools for the mentally retarded, the lack of effective redress in the face of day-to-day discrimination, and so on). The expressions of good intent from the Czech government in the last few months should be welcomed, but the situation must be closely monitored to ensure that good intentions are put into practice. Foreign governments have an important role to play in keeping pressure on the Czech and Slovak governments over this issue, and we expressed to Jeremy Corbyn our regret that the British government was missing this opportunity to support the rights of Roma, and was responding instead with populist and sometimes racist rhetoric. Finally, we transmitted our concern about the practices which had led to the mysterious expulsion of Roma to Calais and the detention of Romani men in England. Jeremy Corbyn listened sympathetically to our concerns. „It is essential that we work together to condemn racism on our continent,” he said, adding that governments must be made to work actively against organised fascist groups. „I understand the situation in the Czech and Slovak Republics as follows: Roma have their legitimate reasons for looking for a safer place... The governments of both countries must complete the antiracist legislation that already exists and ensure that this legislation is used to guarantee the safety of Roma.” He added that the current laws on asylum-seekers are not suitable, forcing local authorities to bear the financial burden of any wave of refugees. He stressed the lack of interest on the part of the media in giving any objective information about these problems.
The next day, we visited the House of Commons and took part in a discussion, chaired by Jeremy Corbyn, in one of the parliamentary committee rooms. The discussion was followed by a short press conference, introduced by brief speeches from Emil Ščuka, Karel Holomek and Jan Kompuš. Much of what had been discussed on the previous day was repeated, with emphasis on the fact that Roma who leave the Czech and Slovak Republics to seek asylum elsewhere should not be described as ‘economic migrants’ and are entitled to have their claims fairly and individually heard. At the press conference, representatives of the British Gypsy and Traveller community expressed their solidarity with Czech and Slovak Roma, and Peter Mercer recounted his own experiences of the discrimination faced by Roma in Prague and elsewhere.
The Roma who have been seeking asylum since last Autumn in England and France have lelt their countries for reasons of discrimination and violence which, whether or not they finally constitute grounds for asylum, merit serious and individual consideration. There is no justification whatsoever for statements giving the impression that they are economic migrants or abusers of the asylum procedure. The situation of the forty Roma in Calais is particularly precarious. The allegations of failure to provide interpreters at crucial moments, together with the implications of the weak reasoning in detention decisions, raise serious doubts about the fairness and impartiality of the immigration offices. Unfortunately, if anyone is abusing the British asylum procedure, it is the British authorities themselves.
- David Chirico is research consultant to the ERRC for the Czech Republic.