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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 May, 2004, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
Roma families 'caught in asylum trap'
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

EU flags
Asylum seekers from new EU countries no longer get support
The High Court has given the go ahead to thousands of asylum seekers from former eastern European countries to challenge the government over the removal of their benefits and orders to leave homes paid for by the state.

The decision came after the government said the 2,500-strong group from new European Union states would no longer qualify as asylum seekers from 1 May because they can legally work in the UK.

Campaigners said the government's handling of the issue was a recipe for chaos and threatened to make families homeless.

They said all they wanted was enough time to obtain work permits (not available until 4 May), find jobs and secure new homes for their families.

At least 250 families have contacted the law firm which took Tuesday's test case while organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux have received a flood of inquiries for help in cities including Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.

Josef Cina represents some 50 Czech Roma families in Newcastle upon Tyne. Mr Cina himself fled his home in 2000 because of persecution.

When locals in his town built a wall to separate the Roma community from the rest of the residents, Mr Cina campaigned against it and was met with death threats.

He fled for his life and in 2002 the UK government agreed he had a genuine fear that his life was in danger.

Since then, he has led campaigns for asylum seekers within his community who have been waiting for an outcome to their cases.

He has also sought to prevent the removal of failed Roma asylum seekers - pointing out that it is a waste of taxpayers' money when they are now able to return as members of the European Union.

Deadline letters

In early April, Roma families in Newcastle along with those elsewhere received letters from the National Asylum Support Service (Nass). It told them to leave their homes by 1 May because they would no longer be eligible for benefits as they could work from that date.

How can you work legally without a National Insurance number or other documentation saying you are legal - we keep saying [to officials] give us the documentation and we will find ways to provide for ourselves. Somebody must provide this basic help
Josef Cina, Roma community spokesman, Newcastle
"The first anyone heard about this was when letters arrived telling people they had to get out. Nobody knew what to make of it.

"I had families calling me asking for advice, some people went to Newcastle City Council or other services such as the law centre. We just didn't know what was going to happen."

The government's reasoning was that, as their nations were now part of the EU, those affected could either go home or support themselves through work.

But campaigners said that these people had been banned from seeking work until 1 May - and that it was a breach of their human rights not to allow them sufficient time to find work and move into new homes.

As the deadline grew nearer, lawyers working with Mr Cina and others drafted a letter to all the families, explaining how they could legally resist eviction.

After the row emerged on the eve of the deadline, the government changed policy and ordered that no evictions take place prior to test cases in the High Court.

'Time wasted'

Mr Cina said families who could be looking for work have wasted valuable time trying to make sure they would still have a roof over their heads.

An immigration officer searches a car
Asylum seekers from new EU states no longer allowed benefits
Told to immediately find work and own housing
Campaigners predicted chaos - saying no transitional help in place
Lawyers challenging policy on human rights grounds

"People have found it extremely difficult to get work - I don't know anybody who is not looking for work. Some have spent years waiting for a decision on their cases, just supported by the government rather than allowed to work. They have not been able to learn about how and where to seek work here.

"But the most serious problem is the lack of documentation."

Mr Cina said those who had tried to seek work early on had been warned by officials that they were breaking the law by doing so.

But even though they were told to leave property on 1 May, officials said they could not register as EU workers - and therefore have the proper paperwork - until Tuesday 4 May.

These circumstances mirror the test case taken before the High Court.

In that case, a man known only as "H" is a skilled bricklayer who has not been allowed to seek work until now.

In other words, say his supporters, the government has not been helping him to find work and provide for his family, even though it tells him to do so.

The High Court has now given permission for that case to go to a full judicial review of the Home Office's handling of the issue.

"How can you work legally without a National Insurance number or other documentation saying you are legal," said Mr Cina.

"We keep saying [to officials] give us the documentation and we will find ways to provide for ourselves. Somebody must provide this basic help."

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