Talking Point

In this week's edition of Talking Point, Rob Cameron looks at controversial measures in place at Prague's Ruzyne Airport, designed to stem the flow of Czech Roma arriving in Britain to seek asylum.

Holiday-makers mill around Prague's Ruzyne Airport, heading off for a few weeks of sun and sea as the summer season reaches its peak. It's a rather boring airport, to be honest - the departure lounges are slick and modern and the Duty Free is full of the same stuff you'd find anywhere else. But for the last two weeks Ruzyne has been thrown into the international spotlight, following the arrival of 12 immigration officers from the United Kingdom. They've been stationed there at the request of Her Majesty's Government, to interview all passengers bound for the U.K. The move is unprecedented - for the first time ever visitors to Britain are being asked to go through immigration before leaving their own country. To hear the following report in Real Audio, click here:

The reason for this is simple. For the last two years members of the Czech Republic's large Roma minority have been arriving on buses and planes in Britain, seeking asylum from what they say is widespread racial discrimination at home. Last year Britain received around 1,200 asylum requests from Czech citizens, almost all of them Roma. The figure applies only to the family member making the claim, and so can be multiplied by at least 4. It's safe to say there are several thousand Czech Roma waiting for asylum in Britain.

The problem is that Britain does not see Czechs - Roma or otherwise - as justified asylum seekers, and says the measures are a necessary response to what it describes as the continuing abuse of its asylum system. The only alternative is the imposition of visas, something Prague is understandable keen to avoid. Hence the "pre-clearance controls" now in place at the airport. Zbynek Havranek is the spokesman for the British Embassy. He told me measures did not discriminate against anyone.

Zbynek Havranek: We don't make any difference. We don't monitor who is Roma, who is a Czech national, who is a foreign national. What we know is people who were refused.

Radio Prague: Could you just perhaps tell me a bit about what happens when you walk into that room to be interviewed by British immigration officials? What would they ask Czech citizens?

ZH: Well, it's exactly what happens and what has always happened on arrival in the U.K., with the exception that now this process is carried out at Prague Airport as well. So basically people are asked questions that should confirm their reason for travelling to the U.K., and questions that will establish that they're really travelling for the purposes that they state they do - i.e., if they claim they're travelling as tourists, they need to make it clear to the consular officials that that's really the case and that they are coming back.

RP: Opponents to these measures say they are racist and aimed exclusively at Roma asylum seekers because it is the number of Roma arriving in Britain which has caused this problem. What would you say to that?

ZH: Well we certainly believe that these measures are not discriminatory, and they certainly apply to all passengers travelling to the U.K., including British nationals or EU nationals. As I said earlier the British officials at Prague Airport don't really distinguish whether somebody is Czech or not, Roma or not. We try to make the measures as fair and as clear as possible.

Richard Samko: Basically me and my colleague Nora Novakova decided to go the airport and see for ourselves how the measures at Ruzyne were working. So we bought our tickets and on Monday we went along to the airport. We filled out the necessary forms, and then we were interviewed individually. Both of us were carrying hidden cameras. The officials began by asking us the same questions - where we were going, why we were going there, who we were going to visit and how much money we had. For Nora that was the end of the interview. But I was taken into a special interview room, where they asked me in detail how much money I make, where I work, and then they asked me when and where I met my friend in England, how many times I'd met him since here in Prague and what we did here.

Radio Prague: And was that person real, or was he made up?

RS: No no, he's a real person. Anyway after all those questions they also asked me where my family lived, how much money I had in my bank account, if I had any savings, and so on. They kept me waiting for 5 to 10 minutes, then the official told me - through an interpreter - that I had not submitted enough evidence to convince him that I was visiting Britain as a tourist. When I asked him to explain why, he told me that he was not required to give me any information. So Nora went to London, and I went home. I tried again the next day. And again I was turned away, by the same official.

The sting - broadcast on the evening news - was a coup for Czech Television and a public relations disaster for London and Prague. Britain fervently denied accusations of discrimination, saying Mr Samko had simply not convinced the officials that he was a bona fide tourist. The Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan - who spent many years living in Britain - even accused Mr Samko of lying, saying his friend's London address was obviously fake. Czech Television sent its London correspondent to that very address, and filmed a report outside it. Another PR disaster.

That disaster was offset slightly this weekend, as immigration officials turned away two Czech girls - white girls, not Romanies - and let through a Roma man. Mr Samko's case is now yesterday's news.

But leaving that aside, what about the airlines? How do they feel being involved in such a controversial scheme? Dan Plovajko is the Director of Public Relations for the country's national carrier, Czech Airlines (CSA), which flies several times a day to the U.K. I asked him to describe the situation before the measures were put in place.

Dan Plovajko: The previous situation was that this control only happened in the United Kingdom, after landing at Heathrow, Manchester or whether it was in the United Kingdom. And then [passengers] went for a standard immigration officer interview, and if they weren't let into the United Kingdom, the transporter - the airline - had to take care of them and transport them back to the country where they came from.

Radio Prague: So Czech Airlines was in favour of this move, because it was costing you a lot of money.

DP: Of course we are favour, and also now we're no longer at risk of being given a penalty from the U.K. side on the basis of carrying or bringing in a passenger who had not been legally allowed to enter that country.

RP: And how much was that penalty?

DP: The penalty still is 2,000 British pounds per passenger.

RP: So every time someone whom you had carried to London was refused entry and sent back, you were fined a penalty of 2,000 pounds.

DP: Exactly.

RP: Plus the costs of flying that person back to Prague.

DP: Yes. That's correct.

RP:If a Roma family arrives at a Czech Airlines office, and says we want to go to London as tourists. We want to got to Big Ben, and the Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace, will you sell them a ticket?

DP: Of course we will. Anybody who comes to a Czech Airlines is sold a ticket to the United Kingdom without any questions, because we have no right to refuse any passengers.

RP: And you wouldn't even warn them?

DP: We have no legal right to warn passengers. We can inform them about the procedures that have been introduced at the airport, but it's not our role to say to somebody 'you will be let in' or 'you won't be let in.' This is not our right at all.

The Director of Public Relations for Czech Airlines, Dan Plovajko, speaking to me there last week. But are Czech Roma entitled to apply for asylum in the first place? Under the 1951 Geneva Convention countries are required to provide asylum if it can be proved that the claimant is subject to persecution at the hands of the state. London says it recognises that the Roma do encounter discrimination in the Czech Republic - a particularly nasty product of such discrimination being the frequent and occasionally fatal attacks by neo-Nazi skinheads - but says that it's satisfied that Prague is doing enough to tackle the problem. But many Roma simply say they have no confidence in the Czech authorities, following a decade of lacklustre prosecution of racial attacks. Czech TV reporter Richard Samko says many Roma are justified in applying for asylum in Britain.

Richard Samko: I think that some of them are, definitely. Romanies who have been attacked by skinheads, Romanies whose relatives have been killed by skinheads who haven't been properly punished. I think those families definitely have the right to apply for asylum. Because in the Czech Republic these crimes just aren't being dealt with properly.

Radio Prague: But the British government says it doesn't grant asylum to any Czech citizens because they're not being persecuted by the Czech state.

RS: Yes, but they're being persecuted by different groups, extremist groups. And Czech law just isn't strict enough to deal with them.

Well one person who knows all about the strengths and weaknesses of Czech law is Klara Vesela-Samkova, a lawyer who works with the Roma community. She says Britain is simply wasting time and money on a mostly pointless task.

Klara Vesela-Samkova: I can say only one thing. If the British government really suppose that they will help themselves, they are really foolish. Because for Roma, borders were never a problem, even in the time of Communism. And if it is not possible now to go through Prague's airport, they will find another way. And in any case, they will go where they want. So it's foolishness.

Britain has now turned away around 100 Czech citizens at Ruzyne, and that number looks set to increase. Roma and human rights groups are lobbying heavily for the 'pre-clearance controls' to be lifted. For the meantime London and Prague are holding firm. Only time will tell whether the two governments can ride out the storm of negative publicity.