Tickets and passports in hand and baggage in tow, Ondrej Holub and his family arrived at Prague's bustling Ruzyne airport last week, eager to travel to London to visit relatives.
But while they were waiting to check in, British customs officials approached.
"They automatically took us aside, and within five minutes an interpreter told us that we weren't flying anywhere," says Mr. Holub, a Roma (Gypsy) from the northern Bohemia region.
"They asked us only about money. We showed them we had 100 ($140) per person. We showed them all of our documents, that we were going there on vacation. Our sister invited us," adds a dejected Holub.
He and his family were among the first would-be British-bound passengers ensnarled in an unprecedented program that is drawing fire from Roma leaders and human rights advocates.
Last Wednesday, British customs officials for the first time began conducting "pre-clearance checks" in a foreign airport, in an effort meant to weed out bogus asylum seekers.
David Broucher, the British ambassador to the Czech Republic, says the measure is needed to stem "the systematic abuse of our immigration and asylum system by some Czech citizens."
Prague fears visa war
The Czech government says it is going along with the program, partly out of fear of a "visa war" with Britain. "Our main goal was to prevent the imposition of visas on Czech citizens," Foreign Minister Jan Kavan said last week. He said the boarding checks were part of a unique bilateral agreement worked out in February.
Despite British and Czech assurances to the contrary, Czech Roma say the program targets them - and is therefore racist. Roma leaders say their government's role in approving the clearance checks underscores the mistrust and misunderstanding between Czechs and Roma, who comprise an estimated 200,000 of the nation's 10 million population. Many complain the state does not do enough to address widespread discrimination, high unemployment, and frequent attacks by members of the country's growing skinhead movement.
Josef Facuna, chairman of the Roma Civic Initiative, a nationwide advocacy group, said he was "shocked by the situation. We're in a democratic state, and I'm travelling as a Czech, not as a Roma." The president of the International Roma Union, Emil Scuka, told Mlada Fronta Denes, a leading Czech daily: "Shortcomings with the British asylum system can't be solved at the expense of the human rights of free Czech citizens, who are on their own territory and therefore not under the jurisdiction of a foreign state." Mr. Scuka said he sent protest letters to the British and Czech governments and was seeking a meeting with Mr. Kavan.
More than 1,235 Roma from the Czech Republic claimed asylum in Britain last year. The figure for the first six months of this year was more than 620. British officials say the actual number of asylum-seekers is even higher, because the statistics only count "principal asylum seekers" - the heads of families. London repatriated 1,160 Roma last year.
The British reject most Czech asylum seekers on grounds that they are not fleeing persecution but seeking better jobs or higher welfare payouts. "Requests for asylum from the Czech Republic are always rejected. Only in a few cases was asylum granted on the basis of a request," says Mr. Boucher.
During a lengthy review process, all applicants for asylum - including Roma - draw state benefits. That has stoked public resentment in Britain, where racial tensions between white and asian youths have exploded this summer into riots in several northern towns.
Boucher rejects criticism that Britain is targeting Czech Roma. All passengers on flights to London - including British nationals, passengers from other European Union countries, and the US - he says, will be subject to the checks, which amount to a few minutes of questions.
But of the first two dozen travelers rejected in Prague by British customs officials in the program's first two days, all but one - a Polish backpacker - were Czech Roma.
"This is part of the British government's ongoing effort to deny people the right to have their [asylum] case heard," says Amnesty International's Brendan Paddy.
The Czech government has rejected charges of racism, emphasizing that the only alternative would have been a visa requirement for all Czechs traveling to Britain. Canada did just that in 1997, after a wave of Czech Roma asylum seekers soured relations between the two countries. Belgium resorted to a similar tactic, after Roma from the Czech Republic's neighbor, Slovakia, began arriving in droves.
'G' for Gypsy?
It is not the first time the British and Czechs have cooperated in halting Roma emigration to Britain. Two years ago, the Czech national airline, CSA, was caught marking with a "G" the names of passengers who resembled Roma on flights to Britain. The lists were then passed to British immigration officials, in what some critics called "racial profiling."
Petr Uhl, a former top Czech human rights official, says the Czech government had no right to allow British officials to operate on Czech soil. "It is discriminatory. A Czech citizen can leave his country at any time, and no foreign departments can stop him," says Mr. Uhl. "Only a law can restrict this right - not an agreement."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor