Britain to face High Court action over "pre-clearance" airport controls

It's six months now since Britain first introduced controversial immigration measures at Prague Airport, in an effort to deal with the large numbers of Roma asylum seekers arriving in Britain over the last three years. The controls are currently suspended, but a group of six Roma passengers denied entry to the U.K. in July are currently bringing legal action against the British Home Secretary David Blunkett, claiming the measures are discriminatory. Rob Cameron has more.

Britain has turned away several hundred passengers - almost all of them Roma - since introducing the "pre-clearance controls" as London calls them, and is hailing the scheme as a success. Under the measures, British immigration officers can check all passengers bound for the United Kingdom and turn away anyone who they say is not a bona fide tourist. London says the measures are designed to protect the British asylum system from abuse by what it describes as "bogus asylum seekers."

But the measures have been deeply controversial both at home and abroad, and opponents claim they are discriminatory on two levels. They say those Roma who have no intention of claiming asylum in the first place are being unlawfully prevented from entering Britain, while those Roma who do intend to claim asylum are being rejected even before being allowed to leave their home country, which they say is a violation of the Geneva Convention.

The legal suit against Mr Blunkett goes further, claiming the British authorities are explicitly singling out the Roma on racial grounds. The British civil rights group Liberty, which is filing the claim on behalf of the six, says the Home Office is using a list of seven ethnic or national groups unlikely to have justified grounds for asylum. Britain, however, says it judges all passengers equally. And, it says, there is nothing wrong with "pre-judging" Roma asylum seekers - Czech Roma are Czech citizens protected by the Czech state - the Czech state does not persecute its citizens, it argues, so there is no grounds on which to grant them asylum.

So the outcome of the judicial review in the High Court will be keenly awaited. If it succeeds, it will be a clear victory for those critics who say the measures are racist and wrong, and also bad news for the Czech government; Prague grudgingly accepted the "pre-clearance controls" only after London made it clear the only alternative was the reintroduction of visas. If it fails, Mr Blunkett and Britain's tough new immigration laws will be vindicated.