Gypsies flee from violence

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The Independent Online
THEY are sly and manipulative scroungers. They have come over here, in the guise of political refugees, to milk the British social security system. This, broadly, is the message sent out by the media about the gypsies who have arrived from Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

But a World in Action documentary due to be screened tomorrow night details the often savage violence faced by a community, many of whose members are now claiming asylum in Britain.

Yesterday the extreme right National Front, fractured and decayed over the years, sought to revive its fortunes by marching through Dover, where many of the gypsies - or Romanies as they prefer to be called - have ended up. The NF supporters intended to march along the seafront but, faced with anti-racist protesters, they decided to abandon their demonstration and leave the town, rather than being ordered to do so by police. Two people were injured during the disruption.

News of the march had sent a group of about 60 asylum seekers to London "demanding ... free food, housing, and health care - the vanguard of an invasion that could be hundreds strong", according to the capital's evening paper. The inference was simple: the fascist march was just an excuse to exploit London's rich resources.

Yet the experience of the Romanies in Eastern Europe suggests the fear of trampling neo-Nazi boots is not fabricated. Tens of thousands were gassed under Hitler's Third Reich. Since the collapse of communism in the region, moreover, Europe's largest stateless minority has been systematically persecuted in many countries of the former Soviet bloc.

In the Czech Republic, 29 gypies have been killed in the last five years; the figures are roughly similar for Slovakia. There are daily catalogues of stabbings, beatings, burnings, and segregation practiced in many towns. The authorities, the Romanies complain, turn a blind eye if they can.

Repeatedly the World in Action programme-makers came across examples of brutality, often by skinhead gangs, which has resulted in murders and maiming. In Pisek in the Czech Republic, four young Romanies were chased into a lake. One who tried to climb out, Tibor Danihel, was battered with baseball bats and flung back in and drowned. He died on his 18th birthday.

Those of the gang who were caught were either freed or received suspended sentences. Three were jailed, but for comparatively short periods on relatively minor charges. One skinhead who received a suspended sentence said he felt no remorse for what happened.

Apart from violence, the Romanies say they face the daily indignity of being treated like second class citizens. Many bars and restaurants in the Czech and Slovak republics refuse to serve them.

The arrival of the Romanies in Dover reportedly began after the screening of a programme on Czech TV about compatriots who were settling in Britain. It emphasised the financial benefits of asylum over here.

One who appeared on the documentary discussing the benefit system, Ladislav Scuka, denied it was an incitement for more to follow him. He fled here, he said, after a firebomb attack on his home in which his daughter was burned.

While seeking asylum, refugees are not allowed to work, and thus have to depend on benefits. A change in the law by the previous Conservative government also means they have to stay at the port of entry. In Dover there is resentment at the financial burden, and petitions are circulating demanding why local taxpayers should be lumbered with it.

Under the Geneva Convention the Home Office only has to let in those who are living in fear of persecution by the state. Merely being terrorised by neo-Nazi gangs does not qualify. To date not one Romany has been granted asylum.