Europe's Wanderers Eye Britain as a New Home

Hundreds of Gypsies cross Channel seeking asylum after EU rules were loosened Sept. 1.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Britain is preparing for a possible flood of Gypsies from the Czech Republic and Slovakia seeking political asylum here.

British immigration officials are blaming a new European Union (EU) law that has removed restrictions on travel across national frontiers.

Officials at the port of Dover, where most of the Gypsies have landed, say as many as 3,000 are on the move in Europe, heading for Britain. About 800 Gypsy men, women, and children have arrived here in the last 90 days.

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A former Army barracks near Dover is being refurbished to accommodate the Gypsies, many of whom say they were enticed by TV programs shown in the Czech Republic suggesting they would receive free accommodations and welfare payments here.

Most claim they have suffered racial harassment at home, and insist that under EU rules that came into force Sept. 1 they have a right to demand political asylum in Britain. Before then, asylum seekers who had passed through another EU country could be sent back to that country on the grounds that their application should have been lodged there.

Under the EU convention, the rules are changed. Now non-EU asylum seekers lacking visas can apply to stay in the state where they say they wish to live.

In practice, this means asylum seekers arriving at Dover can demand to stay in England while their applications are reviewed, which can take several months.

According to Britain's Home Office, the backlog of unprocessed asylum applications from all foreign nationals totals more than 50,000.

The number of Gypsies arriving in Britain is creating a problem for the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Before taking power in the May 1 election, his Labour Party attacked the Conservative administration for its tough approach to asylum seekers and urged great leniency. Now, however, the Labour government is under pressure from residents around Dover, as well as from some sections of the media, to deal firmly with the arriving Gypsies.

On Oct. 20, a Slovak diplomat, after visiting Dover, said his government would attempt to discourage Gypsies in his country from heading to Britain.

Pressure by Gypsies hoping to live in Britain intensified earlier this month when Canada, which had lifted visa requirements for visitors from the Czech Republic, suddenly reimposed restrictions Oct. 6.

Gypsies, also known as Roma, are Europe's largest stateless minority. About 8 million are spread across the Continent. Many follow a life of wandering, and their caravan camps have been targets of local resentment.

According to Czech government estimates, unemployment among the Roma is 70 percent, compared with a national rate of 4 percent.

Josef Novak, editor of the English-language weekly Prague Post, says children from Gypsy families in Czech and Slovak schools have been taunted by other pupils.

Parents in and near Dover have complained that the 100 or so Roma children who attend local schools are putting heavy pressure on teachers and classrooms.

Few of the children speak English. Ian Shepherd, head teacher at Aycliffe School, which has six Slovak pupils and another dozen expected, describes the Gypsy children as "frightened and shy."

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