British immigration controls in Prague

Anyone listening to Radio Prague over the past two weeks could hardly have failed to notice the many stories we have featured on the introduction of British immigration controls at Prague's Ruzyne airport. The officials are there to try and keep down the number of Czechs seeking asylum in Great Britain. As virtually the only Czech nationals who have sought political asylum in Britain over the past few years are from the country's Roma minority, this is the main group that is coming under scrutiny at the airport. Figures vary for how many of them have been turned away, but the vast majority of those prevented from travelling to Britain since the measures were introduced were Czech Roma.

The topic of asylum in Great Britain is a touchy one, and was one of the issues that featured in the recent British general elections. There is considerable opposition in Britain to the current set-up for asylum seekers, where they receive benefits and housing for several months while their asylum requests are processed. This, say opponents of the system, is an unnecessary burden on British taxpayers, and the government has been under pressure to do something about it. Thus the immigration controls at Prague's airport.

The press coverage in the Czech Republic since the measures were introduced two weeks ago has been immense. Every day you can find articles in the papers on the controls and opposition from human rights organisations to what they call the racist and intolerant attitude of the British government. They also claim that this is a violation of Czech sovereignty. President Vaclav Havel has also joined the fray, saying that he is deeply disturbed by what is going on. The Czech government on the other hand, has remained remarkably restrained over the issue, and it has merely stated several times that the measures are legal and do not discriminate against anybody.

It is hard to find the right line and balance in this story. Yes, there are concerns in Britain over the number of Roma seeking asylum there. The British government has described the Roma as economic migrants, and have rejected their requests for asylum. Human rights organisations in the Czech Republic have admitted that yes, the majority of the Roma travelling to Britain are merely economic migrants.

But, they add that there are those with genuine fears, who live with the real threat of violence at the hands of right wing extremists, and by turning all asylum seekers away carte blanche, they could be ignoring real pleas for help. Ironically, just two days after the arrival of British immigration officials at Prague Ruzyne airport, a Roma man was stabbed to death by a far-right skinhead in a brutal attack in Northern Moravia.

The reaction of the Czech media, human rights organisations and even President Havel have added to the growing unpopularity of British immigration officials. It is an extreme measure and may have been taken without due consideration. And Czech politicians have been lining up over the past two weeks to add their own solutions to the problem, including the introduction of visas for Czechs wanting to visit Britain. The Czechs have been against this for years, but faced with the presence of British immigration officials on Czech soil, this option is looking better all the time.

But as one leading politician suggested earlier this week, rather than taking such a drastic and, in the long run, unpopular measure in another country, the British government should be re-examining its asylum procedures to prevent economic migrants abusing them, and allow genuine applicants in. It would be better, he said, than simply turning everyone away. He may have a point there...