Britain on verge of reintroducing controversial immigration controls

The British government appears on the verge of re-imposing its controversial immigration controls at Prague's Ruzyne Airport, and the Czech cabinet gave London permission on Wednesday to bring back the "pre-clearance controls." British immigration officials were first stationed at Prague Airport last month, following a sharp increase in the number of Czechs - almost all of them members of the country's Roma minority - arriving in Britain to seek asylum. The measures were highly controversial but effective; the number of Czech asylum seekers fell dramatically immediately after they were introduced. But two weeks after they were lifted, they're now back on the rise again. Denis Keefe is the British Chargé d'Affaires in Prague, and earlier this week he explained to Radio Prague's Rob Cameron why the measures had been introduced in the first place:

"The problem of people from the Czech Republic seeking asylum in the U.K. when they don't have under international law a well-founded case for asylum is one that's been around for three or four years now. We've been trying with the Czech government to address it in different ways - together - and for two or three years we succeeded in limiting its impact. Unfortunately, the numbers of people seeking asylum in the U.K. without a well-founded case from the Czech Republic went up again at the beginning of this year. And we had to being up into play this mechanism that we'd agreed with the Czech government."

Mr Keefe told Radio Prague that the only alternative to the "pre-clearance controls" was the introduction of visas for all Czechs wishing to visit Britain, something which he said was highly undesirable.

"It's a short-term flexible measure that we can use when there is a particular problem. We think it's good to have that kind of measure available, because in the long run, if the problem can't be solved and goes on generating real problems, then the possibility of a visa regime would arise. And that's something that both we and the Czech government are very keen to avoid, because it simply would not be a good thing. It would cut across the growing relationship between the two countries, precisely at the time when EU accession is approaching. It would be, we recognise, inconvenient and expensive for people. We don't want to do it. But if the problem can't be dealt with by other means then it could in the last resort become a real possibility."

The immigration controls themselves were criticised by human rights and Roma groups, saying they discriminated against all Roma passengers; not just those wishing to apply for asylum in Britain. Czech Television illustrated the point by sending two reporters to London with identical itineraries and identical amounts of money - the 'white' reporter was let through, the Roma reporter was turned away. Britain categorically denied that its officials were deciding on the basis of skin colour, but the story was a public relations nightmare for both Prague and London. Denis Keefe, however, denied that Britain had been forced to lift the controls because of pressure from their opponents.

"We made clear at the outset that it was a short-term, flexible measure, and so we lifted it again when it was clear that it was having a real effect on the numbers. Obviously we had to cope with the criticism, with the pressure from the media. It was clear that there was strong criticism in the media. But that wasn't what made us take our decisions. We made clear as well when we suspended it, that if we need to reintroduce it in order to deal with a similar problem, then we will."