The Plight of the Roma: From Europe to Canada

Canada required a visa from visitors from the Czech Republic until October, 2007. Since then, close to 3,000 Czech Roma have sought refuge in Canada, according to government statistics. The reaction of Canada’s Conservative Party minority government has been openly hostile. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney charged that the Czech Roma were not real refugees. He argued that they were free to move elsewhere in Europe, but he failed to note that in many of the European countries to which they might go they would have had difficulty getting permission to work. In July, Canada imposed new visa restrictions on Czechs, explaining, "The sheer volume of these claims is undermining our ability to help real people fleeing persecution."

While Kenney complained that these Roma were just coming for economic reasons, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board decided in favor of a large majority of Czech claimants: 85% in 2008 and 2009, according to Bill Bila, vice-president of the board of Toronto’s Roma Community Center. According to Paul St. Clair, Executive Director of the Center, Czech Roma seen at the center complained of beatings and harassment by neo-Nazis and skinheads. Skinheads beat and kicked several pregnant women in the stomach. Economic migrants, Mr. Kenney?

The visa requirement shut off the flow of Czech Roma, but since then the Hungarian Roma have been arriving on Canadian shores. While Kenney saw the Czechs as economic migrants, the Hungarian influx is seen as something more sinister. Perhaps organized crime or human smugglers are involved? "That could be one explanation in the very recent explosion in claims," Alykhan Velshi, Kenney’s director of communications, told Canadian press. Needless to say, Canadian Roma were not amused.

"We take offense at the accusation that Roma people would only come to Canada as a result of criminal activity," said Bila of Toronto’s Roma Community Center, "and we demand that the racial stereotyping and racism being put out by the government stop." Canadian officials have offered no evidence to back up the smear.

So why, precisely, have around 1,400 Roma fled Hungary for Canada this year? Amina Sherazee is a Toronto lawyer with a number of Hungarian Roma as clients on their refugee claims. Here are the examples she gave: "physical attacks from the Hungarian Guard, threats to their lives and families from anonymous sources and also from members of an alleged police union organization, racist violence and police complicity." The complaints that she has heard dovetail with other reports about what is happening in Hungary.

In an article by lawyer Lilla Farkas, "There is near consensus among practicing lawyers that discrimination against Roma is the most serious human rights concern in Hungary." She mentions the problem of police violence. The European Court of Human Rights found, in the case of Sandor Balogh, that Hungary had violated the human rights of this Roma who was beaten in police custody. While there have been complaints about police inaction and even complicity with anti-Roma acts, other police have been diligent in their work. Recently, they were able to make arrests in a rash of slayings of Roma.

Right-wing political parties and movements are gaining strength in some areas of Eastern Europe. The Hungarian Guard, for example, is a paramilitary group that conducts marches through Roma settlements. It has been outlawed but is attempting to maneuver around the ban. At the Guard’s founding celebration in 2007, they displayed their flag, containing symbols reminiscent of the fascist Arrow Cross which ruled Hungary at the end of World War II. The flag was blessed by clergy from the Catholic, Calvinist, and Evangelical churches.

The Hungarian Guard is an offshoot of Jobbik, an extreme right-wing political party which elected three members to the European Parliament in the last election and which is expected to break through the five per cent barrier to elect members to the Hungarian Parliament in the next election. Currently, they have some members on local councils, where they cooperate with the right-wing Fidez party, which is seen as a possible winner in the next national election. One Fidez MP, Oszkar Molnar, told a television audience that "Jewish capital wants to devour the entire world, especially Hungary." Jobbik, for its part, runs a website on "gypsy crime."

Since last November, seven Roma have been murdered in Hungary. A father and his four-year-old son were gunned down while fleeing from their home after it had been set ablaze. A mother was shot to death in her home and her daughter wounded in another incident. In another incident, a Hungarian Guard member armed with a gun broke into a house and attacked a man and his wife with a razor. Attackers have also thrown grenades and Molotov cocktails into Roma homes. Extensive documentation of such incidents can be found in reports of the European Roma Rights Center. Accounts have also appeared in the New York Times and Time Magazine.

In response to the constant threat of danger that they face, some Roma settlements have set up their own night patrols for self-protection. Viktoria Mohacsi, a Roma who was till recently a member of the European Parliament, told Der Spiegel, "We can either set up an army or flee."

Canadian Immigration Minister Kenney has learned something from the imposition of the visa requirements on Czechs. The howls of anger from the Czech Republic and the European Union more generally has given him pause about repeating the requirement for the Hungarians.

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance journalist and social worker living in Val-des-Monts, Quebec. Photo from Amnesty International.