Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 10, 30 August 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S   C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
UK: Central Europeans Keep Out!
How British bureaucracy encourages Central
European racism

Jan Culik

Czech bureaucracy is infamous. But British bureaucracy, certainly when dealing with foreigners applying for permission to enter the country, seems to be even much worse.

Is all the talk about helping Central Europeans to integrate into the European Union hypocrisy? British immigration policy is notoriously controversial. Here is an example which seems to show that British immigration policy is also racist. Britain is afraid of an "invasion" of Czech and Slovak Romanies, and so it practices an unnecessarily bureaucratic and unfriendly immigration policy towards all Central Europeans, whom it should be encouraging to visit the West and learn about its life and institutions.

I quote from a letter from one Beata Struharova, a Slovak living in the Czech Republic who recently applied for a visa for a three-month scholarship in Great Britain (originally published in Czech in Britske listy, 27 August 1999):

I had been invited to come to Birmingham for a three-month scholarship . I am a Slovak citizen. Britain recently imposed a visa regime on Slovakia because it is afraid of an "influx" of Romany refugees. So I had to apply for a British visa at the British Embassy.

The British Embassy had told me that in order to apply for a visa I must fill in a form and bring certificates, confirming that I was gainfully employed and what my income was and to bring copies of my personal bank account statements for the past three months as well as a letter of invitation to show that the expenses of my stay would be paid for by the university.

Since she had already been accepted for the scholarship she could, she thought, prove her expenses were being covered by the university:

The letter of invitation from the University of Birmingham was not enough. The letter stated that the University would be paying all expenses connected with my stay, but it did not say expressly how much. Thus I had to ask the university to produce another, more detailed letter. I also brought, as requested, certificates confirming that I was in employment, what my pay was and copies of my personal bank account statements. I was worried: I do not earn large amounts of money.

Struharova did not seem to be the only one at the embassy with such problems:

In the queue before me there was a Slovak girl with a problem similar to mine. She was also invited to a study stay in Britain. She did not know that the British had imposed a visa regime on Slovakia, so she travelled, at considerable expense, to Dover by coach. On arrival there, she was refused entry to Britain. So she returned to to the Czech Republic and went to the British Embassy. There, she met with delays. She was told that it would take some two to three weeks for the Embassy to receive information from Dover about her. She therefore applied for a visa, but was told that that would take three more weeks. She paid the visa fee of 2000 Czech crowns (GBP 40 pounds, the average pay in Slovakia is approximately GBP 150 per month) and waited.

Not only was the procedure complicated but Struharova's attempts to make sense of it were greeted frostily:

Just like the applicant before me, I did not understand some of the questions on the application form. Before paying the unreturnable consular fee of 2000 Czech crowns I wanted to make sure that I had filled the forms correctly. The answers of the Czech official at the Embassy were very short and I had the impression that I was being a nuisance when I dared to ask questions.

For instance, my income, does the Embassy want the sum before or after tax?

Answer: It does not matter, just write something there.

Question: What sum of money will I have at my disposal during my stay in Britain? The sponsor will pay for my accomodation and transport and will give me some cash as well, how should I itemise it?

Answer: it does not matter, just write something.

I realised that these questions were unimportant - why was I being asked to answer them in the first place ? I paid the fee and gave the Embassy official my documentation - passport, residence permit, visa application form, the letter of invitation. Nothing more, I asked surprised: is this all you need? No bank statements, no letters from my employer? No, nothing more is needed, I was told. That shocked me: why did I then apply for copies of my bank statements, whose low balance made me feel embarrased, why did I need to apply for a certificate from my employer to confirm that I was not going to abscond?

To Struharova, there could be only one explanation for such games:

I said that if they wanted to make sure that I was not a Romany they need not have asked me by telephone for my bank statements, surely you could hardly guess a person's ethnicity from them. The embassy official became very nervous. She now asked me for all those additional documents after all, saying that she had forgotten about them. She decided, belatedly, to show that she was not being discriminatory towards Romany applicants. Easily done. Then, I was invited by a Consul to an unpleasant closed room, size 1 metre by 1 metre, behind safety glass. She asked me again whether I was wishing to travel to Britain in order to study. I said in good English that she could read all about it in the letter of invitation. She left me sitting for ten minutes. Then she asked me to wait in another room and invited another applicant to the closed room. Fifteen minutes later, I was given my visa.

Struharova sees all this as being more than an annoying waste of time or a baffling level of bureaucratic incompetence. She explains her feelings against a backdrop of the troubled story of Romanies in the Czech and Slovak Republics:

I used to be very critical towards the attitude of the Czech police for foreigners. I see now that I was not being fair. I will of course continue feeling sorry for myself that as a student who arrived in the Czech Republic before the disintegration of Czechoslovakia I must now prove every year that my criminal register is clear, that I am in gainful employment and that I have 30,000 Czech crowns in my bank account. And I am not even Romany!

The situation of the Romanies in Slovakia is bad. The Slovak state is incapable of reacting to it properly - it does not have sufficient strength and resources to tackle this problem. I have however never learnt from any newspapers how many applicants for asylum in Britain really come from Slovakia and how many of them are only formally Slovak. How many applicants for asylum come from the Czech Republic, after they had acquired Slovak citizenship because they no longer could tolerate the Czech pressure. It is well known, after all, that the Czech state refused to recognize its Romanies as Czech citizens for a long time.

The previous Czech governments, led by Klaus's Civic Democratic Party, adopted a citizenship law according to which only those who had acquired permanent residence in Czechoslovakia and had a clean criminal register could apply for Czech citizenship. The rest of the people became foreigners in the Czech Republic overnight and had to overcome various financial and bureaucratic obstacles. This did not only concern the Romanies but also many students and employees who had had temporary residence in the Czech Republic.

Many of these tens of thousands of people lost the social rights which belong to normal citizens in a state. They lost their right to vote and they had to register in a new way, in a much more complicated procedure than before. Once a High Court judge told me that he had had great difficulties in trying to obtain Czech citizenship, although he managed to complete the process in the end. But what about people who do not have legal qualifications to deal with all the obstacles the Czech state throws at them?

Why am I describing this? According to my information at least half of the Romanies holding Slovak passports who are currently applying for political asylum in Britain, come from the Czech Republic. Britain rejects these applicants for asylum. A few scuffles occured in Dover and so Britain imposed a visa regime on Slovakia. Is it logical and ethical for Britain to impose a visa regime on a country, from which people are fleeing from racism? Czech and Slovak racism against Romanies is well known. It is necessary to do away with it. The European Union demands this in the strongest terms. Why, however, is Britain, a member of EU, adopting racist attitudes towards these applicants?

Surely it is logical that the oppressed ethnic group, the Romanies, will defend itself against oppression by attempting to emigrate, exactly the same way as citizens of East European countries reacted against communist oppresion before 1989. Surely Great Britain and other countries of the European Union would deal a serious blow to Czech and Slovak racism if the Western countries granted asylum to some of the Romany asylum seekers.

Instead, hypocritically, Britain insists that most applicants are "economic" migrants and so the British authorities must defend themselves by imposing a visa regime on all the citizens of Slovakia.

This British attitude actually encourages Czech and Slovak racism. Most Czechs and Slovaks will see themselves justified in their racist attitudes because they see them confirmed by the racist reactions from Great Britain.

I will of course continue to hold the view that the Czech Republic has lost the support of hundreds of students and employees from the Slovak Republic who could have settled in Prague and put in their intellectual potential. Since they were refused their permanent residence permits, they moved on. It is well known that as a result of the difficulties in Slovakia, many Slovaks are now leaving the country, just as the Romanies. When even our home is not good to us, why not look for a better place? But, maybe, even Britain is not an example of a better place.

Jan Culik, 30 August 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER:

Czech Public TV: The yellow-bellies, 23 August 1999

Zelezny Pulls the Plug on Czech TV Nova, 16 August 1999

Czech Media and Civil Society: A survey, 16 August 1999

Czech Revival: No Pulse 99, 9 August 1999

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press , 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999




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