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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Deported Roma may return to UK
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Roma children on a run-down estate, Slovakia
The Roma are arguably Europe's most marginalised and persecuted minority - and have been the target of much of the asylum furore.

So why is the government deporting them when it says they can freely return to work here in less than a year?

Attacked in their homelands and rejected as spongers elsewhere, Europe's Roma are generally accepted to be at the bottom of the pile.

Ask Josef Cina from the Czech Republic. A member of the Roma Gypsy minority, he witnessed years of discrimination against his family and friends.

When locals in the town of Usti nad Labem built a wall to separate them from a Gypsy area, he campaigned against it - and became a target for a skinhead gang. Like many others, Mr Cina fled for his life.

The whites think gypsies stink, they tell us we are dirty
Kalo, a 15-year-old Roma boy

Now settled in Newcastle upon Tyne, he represents more than 150 Roma families, many of whom face possible deportation as failed asylum seekers.

"Romani in central Europe are in extremely vulnerable situations," he says.

"I can't get over the fact that Europe watches this go on after all that it experienced with the Nazis. I know of families who have been deported from the UK and then faced abuse and persecution on their return to the Czech Republic."

The reality of European Roma is far removed from the myth of a carefree travelling people in colourful caravans. For centuries they have been more settled than nomadic - but also entirely ostracised by others, says Professor Thomas Acton of Greenwich University.

"Roma people are survivors of genocide," he says. "They've been continually smashed and effectively locked out of societies for 400 years."

Attacks continue across central and Eastern Europe.

One of the longest running cases at the European Court of Human Rights is that of a Roma village destroyed by a crowd of Hungarians and Romanians in 1993.

But coupled to this, says Prof Acton, is the historic stereotype that Gypsies are liars and thieves.

"When you turn up in a new country you present yourself in the best possible light. Roma have tried to do that for centuries.

"But when immigration officials presume they are lying, perhaps they shouldn't be surprised that people start telling little lies to protect themselves. "The bigger lie is how we have told and ignored the history of these peoples."

Roma arrivals

All of this became an issue for the UK when Roma, principally from the Czech Republic, began arriving as asylum seekers in 1997. Such was the backlash at the time, one local newspaper described them as "human sewage".

Given they will be able to legally come to the UK to work from next year, it seems to me to be very cruel that they can be deported right now
Grattan Puxon, Roma Federation
But despite this reception, they still arrive - and in increasing numbers.

Of the 1,365 Czech asylum applications in 2002 (the vast majority being Roma), none were granted asylum and 10 were given exceptional leave to remain.

Nine out of 10 appeals were rejected and the Home Office has made a public point of deportation of central Europeans from Stansted Airport.

On top of this, immigration officers screen out Roma at Prague airport, a policy still facing a legal challenge.

EU accession

However, from May next year, four countries with the largest Roma communities - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - become EU members.

The UK says it will open its labour market to these groups - one of a few member states to do so.

Roma experts say this will render asylum rules meaningless as those previously deported will simply come back.

Poland: 50,000+
Czech Republic: 275,000
Hungary: 400,000+
Slovakia: 480,000+
Source: All-Party Group on Roma Afairs, 2003
Luke Clements, of the Traveller Law Research Unit at Cardiff University, says this humanitarian crisis won't be hidden anymore.

"Communities will be able to challenge discrimination at home under the EU's race and equality rules.

"They will also be able to exercise the same economic rights to seek work elsewhere on the Continent.

"The government has built up xenophobia against Roma and then on the other agreed to accession. The government has done nothing to explain what it is trying to achieve."

One politician who has tried to get an answer is the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury.

He predicted Roma communities will use EU accession to return to the UK unless conditions improve at home.

"Given that the government has only got limited resources, the time and effort of immigration officials would be better spent looking for other illegal immigrants," he says.

A spokesman for the Home Office defends current policy on Roma asylum seekers, but says there are no plans to stop processing or deporting failed applicants.

"When the Czech Republic becomes a member of the European Union, their citizens will enjoy the same rights as other members of the EU," said the spokesman.

"Anyone can withdraw their [asylum] application. If they are still in the UK [in May 2004] they will be able to apply to work under treaty obligations if they are eligible."

'Failure to protect rights'

But Grattan Puxon, of the Roma Federation in the UK, says any continued Roma movement will represent a failure to protect rights others take for granted.

"The war in Kosovo was all about Europe stopping ethnic cleansing. But what was done about the 120,000 Roma who were forced out after the end of the war?" says Mr Puxon.

"The flows of people are ongoing. And that's because there has not been any end to the attacks on Roma people.

Perhaps EU accession will help because of the pressure that will be put on the new member states.

"But given that they will be able to legally come to the UK to work from next year, it seems to me to be very cruel that they can be deported right now."

Slovakia's beleaguered Gypsies
14 May 03  |  Europe
UN warns of Roma plight
16 Jan 03  |  Europe

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