The British government faces a lawsuit for immigration controls at Ruzyne airport

In July of this year Britain introduced controversial immigration controls at Prague's Ruzyne Airport, in response to an increasing number of Czech citizens - mostly members of the Roma community - flying to Britain to seek asylum. The measures were criticised by Roma groups and human rights organisations, who said they were discriminatory. On Tuesday, after being suspended several times, these "pre-clearance measures" were once again introduced. Radio Prague's Nicole Klement has more.

Last year Britain received around 1,200 asylum requests from Czech citizens, almost all of them believed to be Roma. The figure applies only to the family member making the claim, and so can be multiplied by at least 4. The problem is that Britain does not see Czechs - Roma or otherwise - as justified asylum seekers, and says the measures were a necessary response to what it describes as the continuing abuse of its asylum system. Passengers to Britain are interviewed at the airport, and if the immigration officer is not satisfied that they are bona fide tourists, they're turned away.

At a press conference in September, Britain's Minister for European Affairs, Peter Hain, defended the measures, describing them as both necessary and effective.

"On the question of the pre-entry clearance procedures, which I know have caused a lot of difficulty here and I know have attracted a lot of unwarranted media speculation and criticism. Last month whilst this pre-entry procedure was operating only 19 claims for asylum were made, by Czech citizens, compared with 1200 in the first six months of this year. And, in the three weeks before we instituted the pre-entry clearance system there were 209 claims. If you compare the 209 in three weeks with the 19 in the last month you can see that the system has been necessary and effective."

I also spoke with Giles Portmann -the British Embassy's Press secretary - about the "pre-clearance" measures.

"We agreed with the Czech Government that a system of pre-clearance was a much better more flexible short term way of dealing with that problem and the alternative which is a visa regime. So, we've now had the pre-clearance running for two periods over the summer for about 3 or 4 weeks. And when we suspended the operation the last time on the 27th of September we announced that our officials may well come back for short periods in the coming few weeks. Just to maintain a presence. So, that's why the officials had returned yesterday."

Could you tell me why minority advocate groups are angered by these measures?

"Well, I can't speak for them. But, I can however very firmly refute the accusations by some quarters that the controls are discriminatory. They are certainly not- all people travelling from Prague to Great Britain have to go through the same controls that includes even UK passport holders. Everybody has to meet the immigration criteria. And our officials make their decisions on whether or not to allow people to enter the country on those immigration rules. And a persons ethnicity is not allowed to be taken into consideration."

But that's not a view shared by the European Roma Rights Centre: they're filing a lawsuit in a British court this week, based on claims that the controls discriminate against all Roma wishing to visit Britain.

Author: Nicole Klement
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