British customs controls at Prague's airport have been lifted

The controversial decision by the British authorities last month to install immigration officials at Prague's Ruzyne airport, in an attempt to reduce the number of Czech Roma seeking asylum in the UK, has rarely left the headlines since. But in a surprise move on Tuesday, the British and Czech governments announced that as of Thursday, these controls will be removed. Helen Belmont has more.

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan announced at a joint press conference with the British Chargé d'Affaires in Prague, Denis Keefe, that all restrictions in place at Prague's Ruzyne Airport will cease as of August 9th until further notice. While both sides vehemently deny that any discrimination took place against the Roma population, the immigration controls have been condemned by international human rights organisations, as well as local Roma rights activists. The controls were installed to lessen the pressure on the British asylum system, a goal that appears to have been met. Mr. Kavan announced on Monday that the number of Czech asylum seekers, almost all of them from the Czech Republic's Roma minority, had decreased significantly since the controls were introduced. In the month before the measures were introduced, more than two hundred Czech citizens sought asylum Britain, while only twelve have applied since.

Although the restrictions have been lifted, Foreign Minister Kavan was quick to point out that if necessary, the controls can be re-introduced at any time, if the number of Czech asylum-seekers reaches unacceptable levels. Despite the unpopularity of the measures with human rights organisations and some members of the press, the British Chargé d'Affaires in Prague, Denis Keefe, believes re-introducing the measures is a realistic solution:

"These introduction of these measures has sent a clear signal that the abuse of the asylum-seeking process in Great Britain is unacceptable. We hope that the measures will have a long-term effect. We have approached these controls from the point of view that they will be in place as long as is needed. As they have been successful in the short-term, the measures will be halted as of August 9th. If necessary, we are also prepared to re-introduce them."

Mr. Keefe was also keen to point out that the only alternative to having British immigration officials at Ruzyne airport would have been the introduction of visa requirements for Czechs, a step that neither side wants, as this would harm the Czech Republic's EU accession aspirations. Mr. Keefe told journalists that the British government is willing and able to find an alternative solution to the problem if necessary:

"We are ready to adopt whatever measures prove to be practical, and we are going to go on looking for other measures. The very fact of these measures is a demonstration of our preparedness to do things that aren't normally done in other situations. But this a very specific situation, a very specific practical problem. We found one specific, practical response to it. But we know, Mr. Kavan has said, it is not a solution to the underlying problems.

Author: Helen Belmont
run audio