Gypsies Stranded At The White Cliffs...Are Causing A Ruckus Back Home

For Anca Pozerova, England is a home away from home. Ever since the dusky 40-year-old arrived in the coastal port of Dover at the end of October, she and her two children have faced nothing but hostility. "We can't even go into a shop together--we have to enter one by one," she says with a rueful grin, flashing her gold teeth and tossing her silk head scarf. "It's the same old story. They think we're out to rob them."

Pozerova is one of a group of Gypsies--or Romanies--from Slovakia and the Czech Republic who have traveled to Britain since August. The 800 who Dover authorities say are staying there at the moment were prompted by a Czech TV documentary that aired on Sept. 30 claiming that British immigration policy was lax and suggesting it was easy to claim state handouts. The Gypsies have requested political asylum but probably won't get it. "We're not going to allow asylum to people who are merely looking for a good time," declares British Immigration Minister Mike O'Brien.

But until the appeal process winds its way through the courts, which normally takes three months, the Dover town council must foot the $350-per-person bill for food and lodging. "It's a bleedin' scandal," bellows Terry McNeill, a red-faced unemployed mechanic, over a lunchtime pint of honest English ale. "They're giving out dosh [money] to them like it was going out of fashion."

Britain has started to play rough already, cutting the time period for applying for asylum from 28 days to 5. Since would-be refugees are supposed to seek asylum at their first point of entry in the EU, London has declared that anyone who has crossed another nation before seeking haven in Britain is an "abusive asylum seeker." Already, more than 80 Romanies have been returned to the port of Calais, and the French, in turn, are refusing to let any more Romanies in.

"BIG WHIP." It's the kind of treatment the Romanies were well used to back home, where swimming pools and pubs sometimes refuse entrance to "dark-skinned" clients and many businesses have a rule never to hire them. In the Czech Republic, where Romanies number 300,000 in a population of 10 million, more than half the Romany adults have no work, though national unemployment levels are around 4%. Not surprisingly, crime and welfare dependency are rife. When Jan Slota, a senior figure in the Slovak government, declared recently the only way to deal with Romanies was "with a big whip and a small yard," there were few dissenting white voices. Racial attacks on Romanies have quadrupled since the former Czechoslovakia split into the two republics at the end of 1992.

With the odds stacked against them, it's little wonder Romanies are feeling frustrated. "We're like the Jews before the war: Nobody wants us," rages Jan Kompus, head of Slovakia's Romany Civic Initiative. For these wanderers, though, there's not even the prospect of a Promised land. At least not in England.

The October exodus has reopened scrutiny of the two republics' human-rights records just when they could least use it. Earlier this year, another rose-tinted Czech TV documentary depicting Canada as a racism-free haven prompted thousands of Czech Romanies to sell their belongings and board planes for Toronto, where most languish while their asylum applications are processed. Their plight back home drew strong criticism from North American politicians.


The name-calling hasn't gone down well with officials in Prague and Bratislava. "Come on, all countries have their minority problems," protests Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. "There are no easy solutions." But while Slovak Premier Vladimir Meciar has rejected calls for a new policy on minorities, the Czechs are at least going through the motions. Prague just approved a report calling for a basket of measures including job training, the end of school segregation, and easing citizenship requirements for many stateless Romanies. "This could be what we've been waiting for," comments Romany activist Veronika Kamenicka. "But I'll believe it when it happens."

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