Critics question British immigration controls at Prague Airport

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Last week 12 British immigration officers arrived at Prague's Ruzyne Airport, to begin checking the papers of all passengers travelling to the U.K. The move was unprecedented - for the first time ever visitors to Britain are being asked to go through immigration before leaving their own country. London says the measures are designed to stem what it calls the "continued, systematic abuse of [the British] immigration and asylum system by some Czech citizens" - those Czech citizens being members of the country's large Roma minority. Rob Cameron has more.

London says the measures are not aimed specifically at the Roma - all passengers, it says, must prove they are bona fide tourists who can support themselves during their stay. In the first three days officials turned away some thirty people - and with the exception of one Polish student all of them were Roma. The British authorities have rigorously denied accusations of operating a racist policy, although commentator Vaclav Pinkava says the measures are not so much racist as ineffectual.

"I would say these measures are ineffectual measures, because they are measures at one airport, and they do not in any way influence the seeking of asylum for a number of reasons. First of all physical ones, because one can make one's way to Britain by other means than by air from one particular airport. But more to the point asylum seekers, if they are genuine, should not be excluded at the point of departure from trying to seek asylum."

It's hard to say for certain just how many Roma have arrived in Britain, mainly because of the way information is collected by the British authorities. In the first six months of this year there were 647 applications for asylum, but that figure refers only to the family member making the claim, not his or her family dependants, and the number should be multiplied by at least 3 or 4.

The Roma complain of widespread discrimination in both education and employment, and suffer frequent racially motivated attacks at the hands of far-right skinheads. London acknowledges that there are problems, but does not regard Czech citizens - Roma or otherwise - as justified asylum seekers, because they are not being persecuted by the Czech state. And even if they were, under the Geneva Convention they should apply in the nearest safe country, which is patently not Britain. Vaclav Pinkava says Britain needs to start thinking about changing its asylum law, rather than adapting the present one to an obviously untenable situation.

"It is a legitimate view that anyone from a country in the centre of Europe which is purportedly democratic is not eligible for asylum in Great Britain. Because even under the Geneva Convention, the place they should be looking for asylum is in the nearest country to them with a regime that is more democratic than the one they are getting away from, and that is clearly not Great Britain. However, it is the law - and it is the present law that needs to be looked at - which allows them to claim asylum. It would be a very easy matter to change the law and have an addendum to it saying 'if you are from one of the following countries you are not eligible for asylum'. Full stop."