Cook closes the door on gypsies

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The Independent Online
Britain's `open door' policy towards central and eastern Europe does not extend to the Romany population. Katherine Butler in Prague says a blunt warning to Czech leaders signals that the free movement of citizens could prove an obstacle in the EU enlargement negations.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, pledged yesterday to "throw open the doors of the European union" to the Czech republic. The warmth of his embrace however was not immediately felt among the country's 300,000 gypsies, who were warned to expect no welcome in Britain.

Mr Cook's tough words appeared aimed at demonstrating to a home audience the Government's ruthless approach to illegal immigrants or benefit scroungers. His warnings are a response to anger in Kent and outrage in the right- wing press over the sudden arrival through the port of Dover last month of almost 700 Czech and Slovak gypsies, many claiming to have fled persecution and to be seeking asylum.

"We have a very clear message to anyone contemplating travelling to Britain. Britain does not have an open-door policy to those who allege persecution and cannot then prove it," Mr Cook said. "Britain has a clear duty to get across the message that it is not an cannot be a soft touch for those claiming asylum on the basis of false claims."

Last month's arrivals were apparently prompted by a Czech television film which presented Britain as a paradise for refugees. The exodus, according to diplomats in Prague, nevertheless reflects the extent to which the Romany community feels victimised in the Czech Republic. Violence is common: a Romany man was beaten to death in front of his children by skinheads in one recent incident.

Mr Cook raised what he called the "flood" of gypsies to Britain in three meetings with Czech political leaders yesterday, when the immediate question was covered of repatriating gypsies whose asylum applications have been rejected.

The Czechs have promised almost pounds 20,000 to cover the costs of sending rejecting families home. The Foreign Secretary was careful to avoid any suggestion that the gypsies are the victims of political persecution in the Czech Republic, but delivered a firm warning in the context of EU enlargement that their treatment would have to improve. One of the complaints is that Romany children are systematically placed in schools for the retarded because Czech is not their mother tongue. Illiteracy, unemployment and criminality are all extremely high and the Czech government's insistence that many gypsies are ethnically Slovak means they have difficulty establishing citizenship rights.

President Vaclav Havel, who left his sick bed to meet the Foreign Secretary, and the Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus were both told that the Czech government must offer the gypsies hope of a better life. The Foreign Secretary heard details of 30 measures which the Czech authorities, anxious that the issue could damage EU membership hopes, are promising.

"The Romanies need not fear for their return," Jaroslav Sedivy, the Czech foreign minister, said.