Britain in court over controversial airport controls

Legal action against the British government began at the High Court in London on Monday, on behalf of six Czech Romanies denied entry to Britain in July last year. The human rights group Liberty is seeking a judicial review of British immigration law, claiming the six were subjected to "discriminatory, humiliating and unlawful" treatment by U.K. immigration officers stationed at Prague Airport, who refused to let them board their plane to London. The controversial controls - aimed at stopping Czech Roma from applying for asylum in Britain - have been in place for a year. As the first legal challenge in Britain to the controls got underway, my colleague Rob Cameron spoke to Liberty's communications manager, Roger Bingham.

"The six people, who are all actually taking the cases anonymously, went to Prague Airport to catch flights to London in the course of July of last year. They all had valid airline tickets, they're all Czech nationals, and so don't need a visa to travel to the U.K. But they were all singled out for extended questioning, apparently by reference to the colour of their skin. They were prevented in the end from travelling to the U.K., and effectively we believe this was an instance of racial discrimination that has also prevented them travelling perfectly legitimately and indeed appears to be based on preventing them even entering the asylum system should they wish to claim asylum."

The British government denies that the pre-clearance controls at Prague Airport are discriminatory or unlawful. They say they're merely the most practical solution to a serious problem, which is the British asylum system being abused by Czech citizens. What would you say to that?

"The problem in terms of whether the asylum system is being abused or not is a problem you can answer within the asylum system. Simply, if the system is having trouble processing claims and establishing what's a legitimate claim and what isn't, that's about resourcing the asylum system here, it isn't about preventing people even having access to it. Bear in mind too that not all of these people were even interested in seeking asylum; at least one was an elderly woman seeking to make a short visit to her granddaughter, who lives in the U.K. What this is clearly, is people being prevented from travelling, and if the government's justification is 'because our asylum system is struggling under the weight', that's actually not a justification for stopping people travelling - it's a justification for improving our asylum system."

The British government would say that if legitimate travellers have been turned away unlawfully, that's simply the system not working properly. But the fact remains that the system was put in place to deal with a real problem, and that problem is that the overwhelming majority of Czech Roma travelling to Britain are doing so to claim asylum, asylum which Britain says they as Czech citizens don't even have the right to claim.

"Well, we'd dispute both of those. I don't believe the British government does say that no Czech citizen can apply for asylum, I think that's a reference to a ministerial authorisation that said it was possible to fast-track their return. That authorisation has now been rescinded incidentally. However, again, we actually have an obligation under the Refugee Convention to allow people who are seeking asylum to apply for it. Now if we then determine that it is a false application, that it's not based on sufficient need, then they can be deported. But stopping people at the gates if you like, stopping people applying for asylum, directly contravenes our obligations under the Refugee Convention."

How confident are you of winning this case?

"I never try and second guess the courts. The case starts today. We don't even know yet when we'll get a verdict."

Roger Bingham, communications manager for the British human rights group Liberty, speaking earlier to my colleague Rob Cameron.