"Love thy neighbour"

03 April 1999

Deborah Winterbourne

"Christ said: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,' and when asked 'who is thy neighbour?' went on to the parable of the good Samaritan.

If you wish to understand this parable as it was understood by His hearers, you should substitute 'German' or 'Japanese' for Samaritan. I fear many resent-day [British] Christians would resent such a substitution because it would compel them to realise how far they have departed from the teaching of the Founder of their religion."

(Bertrand Russell Unpopular Essays, 1950)

When I was first asked to write this article, I refused. My opinions would be too inflammatory for the pages of Roma Rights, I argued. It was only when one of the editors convinced me that in the rubric of "Meet the ERRC", I was allowed to put forth my true beliefs about the state of the rule of law in present-day Western Europe that I acquiesced. "It is a subjective rubric," I was told, "Just write down the views you arrived at while practicing refugee law in Britain." The following opinions are my own, of course, and do not necessarily represent the political viewpoints of the ERRC or those working there. After all, some of what I believe might actually be construed as calling into question the sincerity of governments in their commitment to human rights.

Whether the general population in a particular state follow the principles of the Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or some other religion, the one common denominator is that all of these religions have a certain consensus that people should act with kindness towards others. Many states around the world have supported the tenets of their religious beliefs by signing international human rights documents reiterating respect for the rights of others. One such human rights document is the United Nations Convention of 1951 relating to the Status of Refugees in which it is written, among other things, that a state should not return any person to a country or territory where his or her life or liberty may be threatened. The theory of a state's duty of protection towards refugees is clearly set out in the 1951 Convention. The Convention defines a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution due to one of five 'Convention reasons': race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. Over 130 countries in the world have signed this Convention. Waving this document, states - especially Western European ones - proudly proclaim that they are democratic nations which uphold basic human rights.

In practice, the protection of refugees by Western European governments is a shame. In the present cynical circumstances, Western European states strive to achieve a fine balance between demonstrating that they abide by the Convention, while at the same time granting refugee status to an extremely limited number of persons. This is because these governments do not want to anger the resident white population, who often fear that dark-skinned foreigners will absorb scant welfare resources.

When a state considers an asylum claim from an individual person, the outcome will be heavily dependent on which 'Convention reason' is adopted by the individual. Where an asylum seeker claims that he or she has a fear of persecution on the basis of the Convention reason of 'political opinion', usually the individual political activities of the particular asylum seeker are the subject of consideration and no precedent will thereby be set for other cases. Although it is very difficult to be successful in such a case, one factor which makes 'political opinion' cases easier for a state to swallow is that the decision will not lead to hundreds of other asylum seekers being eligible for protection. And if a state decides to grant asylum to such an individual, it can publicise the case as an example of their concern for the plight of refugees.

The problem for a state arises where an asylum seeker claims refugee status on the basis of the Convention reason of 'race'. If such a person is granted refugee status by the authorities, there is then a danger for the state that this case will be indistinguishable from those of other persons claiming asylum from the same race. Western European media and politicians have labeled this the 'floodgate problem'. As soon as a 'race' of people begin to claim asylum on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity, Western European governments put their border authorites on red alert. Whether or not the group in question is persecuted is irrelevant. Western European governments are simply terrified of the economic and political consequences of allowing groups of people to settle in their countries. Yet at the same time, these governments cannot be seen to say that they will not accept genuine refugees.

As a result, the state where the persecuted minority has sought refuge declares that it would of course allow the persecuted people in question to remain in the country if they were genuine refugees, but the particular group does not in fact face persecution. This is how whole groups can come to be regarded as, in the famous words of one present British senior Foreign Office politician, 'bogus asylum seekers' or, in the more polite terms of other politicians wishing to whitewash the situation of various ethnic groups abroad, 'economic migrants'.

How does a Western European government examine the asylum claim of a Rom? On the basis of seven years experience in refugee law in the United Kingdom, I can say that the authorities in the UK give scant consideration to the claim of a Romani asylum seeker. A typical 'Home Office refusal letter' repeats the account of events given by the asylum seeker and then copies the same paragraphs to refuse the claim as for every other Romani case. A refusal letter typically decides that the state of origin is capable of 'effective protection' of the Roma through bodies such as the ombudsman or the police. Sometimes even the name and country of the claimant are wrongly inserted.

If an asylum seeker appeals against a negative decision on his or her case from the British Home Office, a battery of arguments is brought by the presiding adjudicator, all of which add up to the fact that the case never had a chance in the first place. Sometimes the special adjudicator deciding the appeal of a Rom will hold that the account given by the appellant is contradictory and therefore the whole claim is a pack of lies. Or the adjudicator will decide that the treatment of the Rom does not amount to 'persecution' of the appellant within the ambit of the 1951 Convention; or else that the appeal should be refused because the state provides effective protection. It really does not matter, however, what the facts of a particular case are: most adjudicators have already made up their minds that an appeal from a Romani asylum seeker is illegitimate before even hearing the case. In one asylum case of a Romani man from the Czech Republic, the adjudicator recently held that although he accepted the facts in the case - which included failure by the police to respond adequately to an instance of racially-motivated violence - it was natural for police officers to hold prejudices such as anti-Romani sentiment because, "we all have our pet hates". One Tribunal once explicitly stated to me in court, in connection with the asylum appeal of a Rom from Romania, that if the case were allowed it might have the unfortunate effect of setting a precedent for other Romani asylum seekers.

There are over 240 special adjudicators in the UK appellate authority. At this point in time only a handful of these adjudicators would ever consider allowing the appeal of a Rom. If an appeal is successful, you can guarantee that one of this small minority of adjudicators has heard the case. The whole system of refugee appeals is based upon the individual politics of the individual adjudicator. And most refuse to accept that there is a problem for the Romani people.

The British government simply has no idea of the life of a Rom in Central and Eastern Europe. Within a week of arriving in the Czech Republic, several Roma with whom I am working were refused entry into a restaurant and another was kicked by skinheads in a tram. Cases of racially motivated murder, assault, arson are reported to the ERRC on a daily basis. The persecution of the Roma is systematic and endemic. Anyone who has worked with the Romani people and understands the 1951 Convention will know that members of this ethnic group qualify as genuine refugees. From the point of view of most decision-makers in Britain, however, this fact is irrelevant.


Challenge discrimination, promote equality


Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal


The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Find out how you can join or support our activities