This young Romany girl was with one of dozens of families that left the Slovak and Czech Republics for England seeking political asylum. All applications have been denied.
Despite these relatively low numbers, the yellow press has carried reports of a "tide of scrounging applicants" who have already "buried" relief facilities, and of the "flood of 3,000 Gypsies" who are now en route to Britain "to milk the benefits system."
Tabloid headlines notwithstanding, public opinion in Britain is sharply divided on the issue of Romany asylum seekers. On the one hand, many Dover residents have said that the refugees are stretching cash-strapped social services past the breaking point, while others have accused Romanies of cynically manipulating asylum laws to improve their economic situation. On the other hand, religious groups and the Romanies themselves say that the immigrants are simply fleeing racial violence, and should be treated like any other political refugees.
"The problem for Dover is that money is already tight, and now with the Romany asylum seekers the taxpayers are expected to provide instant help," said Caro Slaymaker, third secretary at the British Embassy in Bratislava. "In Britain, the situation is that the local authority is responsible for providing for the care of asylum seekers who arrive in its jurisdiction, and with Dover being a ferry port, they are always at risk of being flooded with refugees."
Current British immigration laws provide asylum claimants not only with housing, but also with income and child benefits of up to 100 pounds a week, access to local schools and health care facilities. Kent County authorities have asked the British government for help in meeting the projected 1 to 2 million pound cost of housing and supporting the newcomers, saying that the cost of educating their children will come to 500,000 pounds alone.
Slaymaker said that housing facilities in Dover had already been exhausted by the influx of Romany refugees. "All the bed and breakfasts are full, and although they've opened up a nursing home to take in the new arrivals, they still don't know what to do with the rest of the Romany families."
Karol Horváth, a Romany resident of Košice who had just returned from England, agreed that conditions in Dover were not encouraging, and said the British authorities had to stop avoiding the issue. "Really, there are only 200 to 300 Romanies there," he said. "It's not so many, and I really think the state could be doing more. These people want to work, [so] the British government should give them asylum, give them some help, give them a chance."
But the burden on public services has turned many Dover residents against their new neighbors. The reaction of one Dover taxi driver, who opined that "we should dump them in the English channel," circulated widely among British dailies, as did the comments of a Dover shop assistant who said that "they just come in and nick stuff, then bring it back and demand refunds, and there's nothing we can do about it."
Slaymaker said that some public resentment had been aroused by "stories coming out of Dover that the Romanies had come simply because of the support benefits," adding that she welcomed changes to Britain's asylum law, announced on October 27 by Jack Straw, the British Housing Secretary. The amendment would speed up the processing of "abusive" asylum claims from 28 to five days. "For some time, we have been perceived as potentially a soft touch," she said. "The idea is to get these asylum cases turned around quicker."
Reverend John Webster, speaking from his home in the south of England, conceded that Dover residents had a right to be concerned about the cost of supporting Romany asylum seekers. "It's going to come out of their budgets, you see, and that's a very concrete worry for them." But Webster maintained that most of the negative feeling toward Romanies "has been stirred up by the national newspapers," and said that "many Britons are very concerned about the fate of the Gypsies."
6. Nov 1997 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson