THE British government is having to defend itself against charges that it is adopting a racist approach to immigration control.
It is also embroiled in a diplomatic row with Jamaica over the allegedly unfair treatment by immigration officials of Caribbean citizens attempting to visit Britain during the Christmas holiday.
The dispute broke out after 190 of 323 passengers on a chartered jet from Kingston, Jamaica, were placed in detention by Home Office officials at London's Gatwick Airport on Dec. 22.
After 48 hours of close questioning, 56 of the Jamaicans were denied entry to Britain. Twenty-seven of them were sent back to Kingston after being told that they would never be allowed to enter Britain. Others returned home voluntarily. About 100 of the 190 originally detained were granted temporary admission.
Police and immigration officials refused requests by journalists and photographers to cover the deportation of the 27 Jamaicans and declined to explain why they had been sent home.
In taking such tough and unusual action, the immigration authorities were touching a raw nerve in British society. There are up to 1.5 million non-white citizens living in Britain, and a high proportion of them are of Caribbean origin.
The widespread public perception in Britain is that Jamaicans are active in gangs connected with the narcotics trade. Home Office spokesmen say this was not a factor in the airport detentions.
All of the would-be visitors at Gatwick told officials they had arrived for short-term stays, and most claimed to be visiting relatives. More than 500 Jamaican friends and relatives were kept waiting at the airport while the detentions continued. Court challenge
Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, describes the British authorities' action as ``a disgrace'' and ``a total humiliation for black people.'' He says his organization plans to challenge the action in court.
Mr. Moraes worries that Britain may soon begin demanding visas from Caribbean citizens wishing to enter Britain. Such visas are not required under current law.
Bill Morris, Jamaican-born general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, the country's largest, has written to Prime Minister John Major, demanding an explanation for the treatment of the visitors on the pre-Christmas flight.
In a complaint to London, the Jamaican government reminded Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd that 32,000 Jamaicans visit Britain each year and demanded to know whether there had been any change in the entry criteria being applied. ``We are particularly concerned to ensure that Jamaican nationals are treated with dignity and respect,'' the Jamaican government said, ``and that due regard is paid to the observance of humanitarian considerations.''
Moraes and the British Home Office disagree sharply about why the Jamaican visitors were detained.
Charles Wardle, the minister for immigration, denies a charge by Moraes that the Christmas Day deportations had been contrived to soften public opinion for the imposition of visa requirements on visiting Jamaicans.
Mr. Wardle also denies that the detentions were racially motivated. In a Dec. 28 letter to the London Times, which had criticized the detention, he wrote: ``There have been no changes to the instructions to immigration officers.''
Moraes and Morris contest this, however. Both say that under a new immigration law passed earlier this year, visitors threatened with deportation are denied the right of appeal on the merits of their case. Moraes says that his council plans to challenge the new law in the courts and argue that the deportations were racially motivated: ``They don't treat animals like this.''
Max Madden, a Labour member of Parliament for the Bradford area, where tens of thousands of non-whites live, says all but one of the Jamaican visitors had been unable to obtain legal advice on the immigration rights. The one man who was able to telephone a lawyer was allowed to stay after a judge granted an injunction.
Mr. Madden has asked the prime minister to confirm or deny that a ``special operation'' was mounted to ``deal with the Jamaicans.'' Downing Street did not respond immediately.
Madden says the incident has proved ``an embarrassing fiasco'' for British authorities and has done ``enormous damage'' to Britain's reputation as a tourist center. Coming policy shift?
Moraes, who is of Indian origin, says that a policy shift may be on the way.
He recalls that 10 years ago, plane loads of visitors from the Indian region had suddenly been subjected to close questioning by immigration officials. A few months later, the government imposed visa requirements on visitors from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Tara Mukherjee, a spokesman for the London-based Confederation of Indian Organizations, suggests that the government may be planning to bring its immigration rules into line with those of other European Union countries. Under the Maastricht Treaty, he says, Britain may decide to apply EU regulations to Caribbean visitors. Most EU countries already require non-white visitors to produce visas when they arrive.