The controversial issue of Romani asylum seekers from Central and Eastern Europe poked its head out again this week in British newspapers. A landmark judgement was made on 6 July by the British House of Lords, which rejected the arguments of a Slovakian Roma man who had claimed asylum through fear of skinhead attacks in his home country.
After Milan Horvath's case had been rejected in turn by an appeals adjudicator in the Immigration Service, and then, last December, in the Court of Appeal, he resorted to the House of Lords, which is the country's highest appellate court.
Five Law Lords sitting in judgement decided unanimously to dismiss the appeal. Their interpretation of the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees was that where a state offered protection through the rule of law and was willing and able to enforce that law, a person from that country would not be granted asylum if he or she had been persecuted by persons other than the state, rather than by the state itself.
Real threat or choreography?
Horvath had claimed asylum upon arriving in Britain in 1997 with his wife and child, on the grounds of his life being threatened by neo-Nazi skinheads in his home town.
According to the Daily Mail's Michael Clarke, "He claimed that his father had been beaten to death, his brother had been beaten with baseball bats and their home had been ransacked. His terrified family was forced to shelter at night in a hole in the back garden. The country's police were also racist and gave gipsies no protection from their attackers, he claimed." ("Law Lords call a halt to gipsy asylum claims", 7 July)
Horvath's appeal was seen as a test case and therefore the verdict will affect hundreds of other Roma who will now face deportation.
The repeated use of the word "claimed" in the Daily Mail article is telling: the paper has spearheaded the campaign to clamp down on asylum seekers, attacking Home Secretary Jack Straw's tough new curbs for not going far enough. Clarke infers that many asylum-seeking Roma lie about conditions at home:
"Gipsies from Eastern Europe began arriving in large numbers at Dover from 1997. Some were carrying letters giving detailed instructions on how to apply for asylum. Several letters recommended putting forward the skinhead angle, one concluding, 'Say they beat us gipsies, kill us, attack our homes and if we want to live we have to run and leave their white Slovakia.'"
Clarke goes on to cite the verdict of Conservative MP Gerald Howarth:
"This is an extremely important judgement. Had the Law Lords ruled the other way, that would have opened the doors to many other people around the world. We would have been placed in the situation of effectively being responsible for the quality of policing in every other country in the world. We can all breathe a sigh of relief."
A different enlargement
The Mail chose to enlarge that last sentence into a subheadline, and it no doubt expresses the paper's own position quite clearly. We can all breathe a sigh of relief... But can we sleep easy in our beds at night? There is copious evidence of skinhead violence against Roma in CEE countries, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, to name just two, extensive discrimination against Roma and also official inaction when faced with such violence and discrimination.
Richard Ford in The Times ("No asylum for Gypsies in fear of skinheads", 7 July) quoted Annette Elder, Horvath's solicitor in London, who "said that her client was very disappointed at the ruling. 'We now have the most restrictive interpretation of the 1951 Convention on Refugees in Europe,' she added."
Fear on all sides
However, even if this is the case, the ruling has not yet provoked much criticism in the press. It was not just the Mail heaving a sigh of relief.
"It was feared that a victory for Mr Horvath would lead to a huge increase in gipsy asylum seekers," wrote Terence Shaw in the Daily Telegraph ("Gipsy loses battle for asylum in test case," 7 July). To judge by the press outcry the past few months, one would think they had already all come to Britain to seek asylum. The Telegraph is the same paper, for example, in which Marie Woolf reported on 20 March that, "there has been widespread public dismay at a visible increase in asylum seekers looking for casual work and begging on the streets."
Even the Guardian's Alan Travis, who has written extensively on the asylum issue in recent months, was only accorded five short paragraphs to report the case, without space to comment beyond describing it as "a crucial House of Lords test case" because of the "implications for hundreds of other Roma or Gypsy asylum seekers" and "many other asylum cases" ("Roma loses text case for asylum," 7 July). There may well be further comment over the weekend.
"Lord Hope of Craighead," reported Richard Ford, "said that the obligation to provide refugee status applied only if the applicant's own State was unable or unwilling to protect its own people. He added that the applicant might have a well founded fear of threats to his life or isolated acts of violence but the risk, 'however severe, and the fear, however well founded, do not entitle him to the status of refugee'."
Whose (in)competence is it, after all?
In delivering his verdict, Lord Lloyd of Berwick said:
"This finding is not, of course, in any way inconsistent with the finding that the applicants had a well-found fear of persecution. There are parts of London or New York where one may indeed have a well-found fear of being attacked in the street. But that does not mean there is not an efficient police force and an impartial judiciary."
The comparison seems inappropriate in multiple ways. First of all, London is not as dangerous as that, it is not a city of no-go areas. As for Britain's "efficient" police force... well, by international standards it performs very well, but one must recall that the Metropolitan Police were condemned last year by the official Macpherson Report for "professional incompetence" and "institutional racism."
And as for Britain's impartial judiciary, surely this is one verdict that should not be delivered by a judge: to quote Mandy Rice-Davies, he would say that, wouldn't he?
My point is not to knock judges and policemen in Britain, but to question whether we should really be expelling people who are apparently in fear of their lives, on the grounds that the police force in their own country might sort it out. They didn't manage it before, so why now?
If we coldly conclude that these new arrivals are too much of a burden on taxpayers' money, why not at least set up a regime which gradually removes the paltry benefits and vouchers they receive and, instead, allow and encourage them to seek work to support themselves? We should not be so afraid of immigration.
Oliver Craske, 9 July 2000
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