More than 500 Slovak Romanies seeking asylum have fled to the United Kingdom over the past two months. Claiming racial persecution, the emigrants are joined by almost 10 new arrivals every day. But British officials view the exodus as economically rather than politically motivated, and say that most Slovak Romanies will be forced to return to their home country.
Although six Slovak Romany families were granted asylum by the British authorities in early June, the new "White Paper" on UK immigration policy makes asylum procedures "faster, fairer and firmer" for victims of human rights abuses but much harder for those seeking a better standard of living.
No free lunches
"[The Romanies] will not find themselves placed in holiday camps," said Peter Harborne, British Ambassador to Slovakia. Harborne pointed out that many of the recent Romany refugees who have arrived in England since June "seek higher living standards instead of fleeing from actual persecution."
This summer's exodus began after stories began to circulate in the Romany community about the six families who hade been granted asylum; over 250 new appeals for asylum were made in the next eight weeks. According to Anna Koptová, manager of the independent Legal Protection of Ethnic Groups Office, Romanies have cited racially motivated violence, unemployment and worsening living conditions as their main reasons for leaving. "These people often have no chance to find jobs, their living standard is decreasing and the young generations are being isolated from the rest of the society," said Koptová. "Many of them see no other chance but to leave the country."
But Slovak and British officials said that the profile of the typical Romany refugee has begun to change, and that many financially independent Romanies with higher levels of education are now taking flight. "They have the resources for air travel and they have the resources to stay in England at their own expense during the time their asylum applications are being considered," Harborne said, adding that most of these wealthier Romanies would be refused asylum.
Under the newly approved immigration policies, issued on July 24, the overall procedure of applying for asylum will be shortened, but examination of the relevance and credibility of refugees' reasons for claiming asylum will be intensified. "Those immigrants who do not prove they are fleeing persecution in their home country will be turned away and sent back," said Harborne. He added that shortening the application procedure will make life difficult for "unscrupulous lawyers who profit from coaching the claimants, giving them a blueprint of what to say in court when they are interviewed about the application."
According to the reports of the British Home Office, 100 percent of Slovak Romanies who sought asylum from January to May were denied, and over 500 have been removed from Britain since October 1997.
Slovak officials opined that the exodus has harmed Slovakia's international reputation, and said that the reasons for which the Romanies claim asylum are spurious. "I don't think anyone in Slovakia should have a reason to seek political asylum abroad," maintained Jaroslav Lipták, head of the Slovak Foreign Ministry's Minority Affairs Department.
Anina Botošová, at the Slovak Government Office, explained that the government has discussed the credibility of asylum claims with representatives of Romany civic associations and political parties, but to little effect. "We monitor the situation, appeal to [the Romanies]; but if someone wants to leave, what can we do about it?" asked Botošová.
The Romanies themselves hold that local government and state bodies in particular have shown no interest in solving the glaring problems of Romany unemployment and social isolation.
Lipták said that the Slovak-British dialogue on the topic has recently intensified. Neither side expects to see drastic measures like requiring Slovaks to obtain visas to enter Britain. But Harborne warned that "it could end up that way if no other solution can be applied successfully."