On February 17, 2012, in Ottawa, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was discussing the arrival of one group of refugee claimants, most of whom are Hungarian. He was not pleased. “Our government is very disturbed by the recent rise in requests from democratic countries that respect human rights,” he remarked. “The rising number of bogus requests from democratic states of the European Union just makes this problem worse.” Kenney first used the term “bogus” in 2009 to describe Roma claimants and has favoured it ever since. He inspired the Toronto Sun to run this headline on October 27, 2011: “Feds vow crackdown as Pearson flooded with bogus Hungarian Roma claims.”
Why are the Roma fleeing Hungary? What is the basis of their refugee claims? Why, despite so much evidence to the contrary, does Kenney insist that Roma refugee claims are fraudulent?
It turns out that Hungary demonstrates inconsistencies between the principle of democracy and its practice. One manifestation is the renewal of symbols of Hungary’s Nazi past. Statues of Miklós Horthy were recently unveiled in two locations in the country. Horthy, Regent of Hungary from 1920–44, was responsible for the deportation of 450,000 Jewish Hungarians. Another danger is the legitimacy of the Jobbik party. Public support for the extreme right-wing party (“Movement for a Better Hungary”) is growing exponentially. From their three seats in the 2009 EU Parliament, their current 47 seats in 2010 make it the third-strongest party in Hungary. The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities describes the Jobbik party as “extremist and xenophobic” and holds responsible their racist statements against the Roma for the deteriorating social climate. Jobbik’s paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard, has several thousand members. Despite its ban in 2009 for rejecting equal rights to the Roma and inciting resentment against them, it reorganized into new organizations with similar-sounding names. Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB ) lists 11 anti-Roma demonstrations led by them between 2007 and 2010 in locations including Budapest. In March and April 2011, paramilitary groups organized patrols and a training camp in the town of Gyongyospata. NGOs asserted that the Hungarian government failed to protect the local Roma minority against the racist provocation. Governments have been alerted. In its 2011 report on international human rights practices, the US Department of State noted the “public campaigns by paramilitaries to intimidate and incite hatred against Roma and other minorities” in Hungary.
This June, 50 members of the United States Congress called on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor 13 Orban to stand up against the remarks and positions of Jobbik.
A campaign of fear and violence
The party assumes an explicitly public presence. Roma residents speak of their fear when they see party supporters assembled on street corners soliciting signatures for petitions. Racially motivated violence occurs regularly in the country. Since 2008, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERR C) registered at least 48 violent attacks in Hungary including one involving a five-year-old child in a well-documented serial murder of six Roma in 2008–09. One pattern of attack is the firebombing of homes followed by shooting of the Roma residents as they flee. NGOs have criticized Hungarian authorities for their failure to properly investigate racially motivated crimes. In addition to these incidents, organizations such as Amnesty International and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights have published reports of social exclusion of Roma in Hungary in housing, health, education, employment, criminal justice and social services.
In 2011, these conditions led 4,423 Hungarian Roma to leave Hungary and claim refugee status in Canada, just less than double the 2,300 in 2010. Minister Kenney is intent on turning them away. He insists that they are economic migrants who desire to take advantage of the generous provisions of our system. In her May and June 2012 appearances before Parliamentary and Senate committees, Director of the Roma Community Centre Gina Csanyi urged the government to understand that European Roma live under the constant threat of racially motivated violence. It is this that drives their refugee claims, not their desire to escape poverty. The Minister remains impervious to the facts. As he put it on Hungarian TV on December 4, 2011, he understands that their refugee claims are “just about whether they like the state they are living in or not, and it’s not about whether life is easy there or not, nor is it about occasional acts of discrimination.” What Kenney calls “occasional acts of discrimination” clashes with the daily reports of violence against the Roma in Hungary.
A continental problem
Hungary is not unique. Roma are treated with contempt in most European countries. In March 2012, the Council of Europe released a 254-page report entitled Human Rights of Roma and Travellers in Europe. In it, Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg writes that the Roma “see similarities between much of today’s anti- Roma rhetoric with the language used in the past in Europe by Nazis and fascists and other extremists.” When they became EU members, Hungary and other East European countries were required to create antidiscrimination laws, but contradictions between the law and its enforcement are conspicuous.
In March 2012, the European Roma Policy Coalition reported on the status of EU National Roma Integration Strategies in the four priority areas of health, housing, education and employment. The coalition found that even the best fall far short of what is required to fight discrimination and segregation, and in many countries “the impact on Roma communities remains negligible.”
To meet the conditions of EU membership, the gap between anti-discrimination laws and their implementation must be concealed. Given its trade relations with the EU (and now CETA, the planned Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement), Canada must comply with this denial. The refugee determination process operates on the inaccurate view that the conditions in Europe are improving despite clear evidence to the contrary. The consequence is the effective exclusion of the Roma.
Kenney has a new instrument at his disposal. Aimed at facilitating the removal of Roma refugee claimants, the new law, “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act,” is breathtaking in its impact. It hastens the timeline in which refugee claimants can prove their claim, designates some countries as “safe” to which refugees may be returned, and designates some refugees as “irregular arrivals” and prohibits them from reuniting for five years. “Safe” countries appear on a list of Designated Countries of Origin (DCO) that includes Hungary and other countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia from which Roma claimants are fleeing. A clever policy trick ensures that humanitarian and compassionate requests will be rare: they cannot be made until one year after the filing of a claim.
Bureaucratic and legal hurdles
Pre-Removal Risk Assessment appeals require a three-year wait. Since the IRB hearing must wrap up in 30 or 45 days (depending on whether the claim was first declared at the border or inland), claimants are forced to leave well before one year after their arrival. Claimants from countries on the DCO list have no right to appeal whatsoever. They are able to request a judicial review with the Federal Court, but the Minister can decide to deport the claimant even while the court is processing the request. In fact, the law vests the Minister with the extraordinary powers to make decisions using nothing more than his discretion. He can revoke the permanent residency status of refugees who visit relatives in Europe. He can unilaterally decide whether a DCO is “safe” regardless of reports — including those of the IRB — of anti- Roma violence. These ministerial powers are unique to Canada. Elsewhere, such decisions are made using information on the state of human rights in the claimant’s country.
The social impact of the law is shocking. Work permits are disallowed; some lawyers are turning down legal aid cases; some landlords are refusing to rent to applicants they suspect are Roma refugees; federal healthcare benefits have been utterly dismantled. A pilot program finances voluntary repatriation increasing the speed at which claimants are removed from the country. Roma refugees may decide to abandon their claims when separation from their families is a hardship they cannot bear, or when the combined problems of unemployment, poor housing, forced welfare, ineligibility for English classes, and no Medicare force them to leave. This creates an irony. Abandoned and withdrawn claims are used as evidence of the safety of a DCO. The conditions for abandonment are set up, and then Kenney uses these conditions against the Roma as criteria in determining their claims as “bogus.”
Two days after the Toronto Sun headline, Kenney arrived unannounced at the Roma Community Centre asking for an explanation for abandoned claims. Beaudoin had prepared points on this, but Kenney cut her off before she could elaborate. Although he later apologized, she remains unsatisfied. “He specifically asked about the abandoned claims, but he clearly wasn’t interested in listening to any answers.” Along with the other representatives of the Centre, Beaudoin is suspicious of the true purpose of Kenney’s visit. Given his unabated remarks about fraudulent claims, it became obvious to everyone that his “consultation” with the community was, well, bogus.
Canada’s rejection of the Roma is a far cry from the past when our willingness to admit refugees won us a United Nations Nansen Medal in 1982. In those days, we took in thousands of Czechs, Ugandans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Lebanese and Chinese as they fled conflict zones. Today, the government points to geopolitical realities as reasons to sort refugees into deserving and undeserving groups. It asserts suspicion not compassion, exclusion not inclusion, family division not family reunification. It defies the spirit of the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees whose obligations we assumed when we signed that agreement. That the cost of this shift is borne by some of the most vulnerable people in the world is an injustice of enormous proportions
Publisher’s Note: Since the printing of this issue of CD many have weighed in on the plight of the Roma, much of it ignited by Sun News Network’s Ezra Levant, who ranted on “the Gypsy Problem.” (The video of the segment is currently no longer available on the internet and Sun News Network has issued an apology.) Subsequently, there have been a number of notable rebuttals to Levant’s alleged hate-speach, including rabble.ca’s “Ezra Levant openly promotes hatred against Roma people in Canada,” by Karl Nerenburg, and the National Post’s “Hating the Jew, hating the ‘gypsy’” by, among others, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress Bernie Farber.
Cynthia Levine-Rasky is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University. Her book Whiteness Fractured will be published by Ashgate Press in 2013. Her recent research focus is the Canadian Roma community, about whom she plans to write a book tentatively entitled Writing the Roma.