Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 13
20 September 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:
Indiscriminate Visas?

Vaclav Pinkava

When I first came back from exile in Britain to visit Czechoslovakia, in 1990, I needed a Czech visa. It cost some GBP 25. During my visit, Margaret Thatcher made an appearance, and the need for visas was ceremoniously abolished. The British reciprocated, though not quite simultaneously.

Now, there is talk of reintroducing visas for Czechs travelling to Britain.

In Czecho it is being presented as a perfectly justifiable response to the exodus of Roma seeking political asylum - Roma whom Czech society has let down badly. Over 80% unemployment, ghetto housing, education in schools for the mentally handicapped - all these are cited as relevant indicators. Czechs deserve a slap on the wrist; how better than through British entry visas.

The number of Czech-based asylum seekers in Britain has been rising in the last few months to over 200 families.

Here in the Czech Republic, everyone knows (or will volunteer to tell you) that these are in fact "Slovak Gypsies" and economic, rather than political migrants, claiming social security payments in absentia back home while on "subsidised holiday" in Dover, and "spoiling our image in the EU."

But Britain does not see it that way. Britain is not discriminating; it is indiscriminate in considering entry visas. One yardstick for all. Britain does not recognise any distinctions between race, colour, creed and so forth. All Czechs shall need visas.

There are a couple of implications to consider here.

  • Czech Roma are not being granted asylum in Britain. The British assessment system is slow to administer and costly to the public purse while you wait to be turned down. That is the issue. But, therefore, evidently Czecho is not racist enough for our Roma compatriots to be granted a haven in Britain. What is the answer? Let us be more racist, let them be persecuted so they may be judged worthy, so they succeed in their quest. Let them all go forth and multiply. And the problem will literally go away. How to create this racist resurgence in Czecho? Easy. Increase social tension by making "the rest of us" pay the price of needing visas because of "their" irresponsible behaviour in seeking to emigrate. Voila.
  • Even more ridiculous is the step taken by the Czech government official overseeing ethnic relations, Petr Uhl, to announce in advance that visas will likely be introduced in the fourth quarter. The clear message to anyone wishing to travel to Britain to claim asylum is, do it now. The result? The number of claimants will go up even more. The number will exceed some limit set internally in Britain for introducing visas, thereby justifying the step in bureaucratic terms. The positive feedback loop will itself result in visas being reintroduced. Inevitably.

The trick about requiring entry visas is that under British law you can't take somebody aboard your ferry to Britain if they do not have a visa, and ought to - it will become your problem when they disembark. You'll have to ship them back and you'll be fined quite a lot of money. So, the problem stops at Britain's door. Interesting attitude, that. I once watched a documentary about Gypsies in Britain, living in spotless caravans. They just seemed to throw their garbage out of the window. In my back yard? Sure. Just not in my parlour.

Under international conventions on refugees, which Britain has signed, the persecuted can enter a country and apply for asylum (as long as they manage to physically get there), visas or no visas, passports or no passports. That is reasonable enough. I got that information by listening to the BBC World Service, by the way.

The fact that political refugees do not need visas is a key one. It becomes almost a prerequisite for seeking political asylum that you do not have a visa. Your need is pressing. You are being persecuted. Why stick around to seek a visa when your life is under threat?

So visas do not limit political migrants, they limit economic ones, those who work cheaper than the natives, or those who prefer not to work at all.

The only logical conclusion is that if visas are introduced, it would be to stem the tide of Czech economic migrants. Give me your poor, huddled masses? Not here, thanks!

In being indiscriminately discriminatory there is a logical error - if all undesirable asylum seekers currently in Dover are Czechs, this does not mean that all future travelling Czechs are potential undesirable asylum seekers. This is too obvious for anyone to miss, so visas are introduced as a requirement for all, in order to be selectively granted to some. For a small fee.

How then will Britain decide who gets a visa? Are the officials at the British Embassy going to ask the applicant how long they intend to stay, how much cash they have with them, where they are to be housed and so forth? Of course. Will they do this by post, via a remote computer terminal. Of course not. They will interview the applicant, look them in the eyes, face to face, in full technicolour. I wonder how many pigmented Czechs will get a visa? How will the officials judge in advance who is a potential economic migrant, aiming to apply for pseudo political asylum the moment he sets foot on British soil? How? Guess.

Who will be the racists then, the Czechs, or the British, or the Czechs working for the British?

There is, of course, the same fundamental catch to all this.

Anyone wishing to claim political asylum can do so without a visa. Those are the rules that Britain has signed up for.

If visas are introduced and you don't get a visa next year, make your way to Britain illegally, cross the Channel on a raft, as a stowaway, or whatever, the more bedraggled and suffering you look when you get there, the better. Then claim political asylum because of persecution at home in Czecho.

What kind of persecution? Racism.

But it has to be institutionalised racism, or it doesn't count.

Institutionalised? Sure. "I did not get an entry visa, only my whiter Czech compatriots did. They assumed I wanted a visa so that I could enter Britain to seek asylum, not so I could look at Big Ben. They were white Czechs, working for the British Embassy. Racists."

Sorry, the racist institution has to be a Czech one. The British Embassy doesn't count.

Or does it?

Vaclav Pinkava, 20 September 1999




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