Gypsies fly in to appeal for asylum

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MORE THAN 40 East European gypsies landed at London's Heathrow Airport yesterday to join hundreds who have arrived this month seeking political asylum .

Immigration authorities believe the influx will continue for the immediate future as more refugees, from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, try to follow 600 compatriots who have come to Britain in recent weeks.

Almost without exception, the asylum seekers say they have been subjected to attacks by "skinheads" in their home towns, with the acquiescence of the local police. The numbers reached a peak three days ago when 105 people, 31 heads of families and 74 women and children, arrived at the airport's Terminal 2 on flights from Prague.

On Thursday night more than 60 refugees had to sleep at the airport while immigration officers sought to process them. The sudden upsurge has put enormous strains on the system and many of them will not be re-interviewed until November for a decision to be made on their status.

The Home Office, had in the past, rejected most of the asylum pleas of gypsies from former Czechoslovakia as false. However, under law, the arrivals have to be given temporary leave to remain while the claims are investigated.

Last month the government announced measures to tighten up the asylum procedure, including stopping asylum seekers from claiming benefits. There are also plans to introduce stricter border controls. Immigration officers believe the increase in the numbers of the gypsies arriving may be related to that.

Home Office figures on asylum seekers to the UK show the numbers have gone up eightfold over the last 10 years.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook asked the Czech Republic last year to improve its treatment of refugees, and warned Britain would not be able to take in the numbers who may arrive here.

The number of Czech and Slovakian immigrants flooding into Britain has increased dramatically in the last few months, the Home Office said yesterday.

Its latest figures show that 476 entered the country between August 1- 24. This week alone saw 185 Slovaks arriving at Heathrow's Terminal 2. And between January and July this year, 160 Czechs and 215 Slovakians sought asylum in this country. The total of 851 asylum seekers so far this year compares with only 450 during the whole of 1997.

But a Home Office spokesman said the immigration service is "coping very well at the moment''.

He said: "This is a massive increase. We can't say what is happening or what is coming until people come off the plane. It's a case of dealing with it on a day-to-day basis.

"I understand the general claim is that they are fleeing from attacks by skinheads in their own countries.

"They don't need visas to enter this country so the airlines are obliged to carry them, but it does indicate the numbers will climb again."

British officials are in contact with Czech and Slovakian officials to see what can be done.