Is Canada saying ‘none is too many’ to the Roma?

Roma-Canadians take part in a vigil against human rights abuses/racism occurring in Hungary.

The spokesperson for the Roma Community in Canada says her community feels disheartened and frustrated by Canada’s new immigration laws.

Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of the Toronto Roma Community Centre has harsh criticism for Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which she criticized as being specifically anti-Roma and which she said seeks to bar her people from entering the country based on a racist philosophy.

She made the comments while speaking at an intercultural discussion at congregation Darchei Noam on Nov. 18.

Related: Canadian Roma plead for Jewish support

Csanyi-Robah said the new law, which was highly touted by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney earlier this year, falsely labels Roma who are seeking entry into Canada as “bogus” claimants linked to human smuggling operations and as criminals who are trying to abuse Canada’s welfare system.

“Kenney has succeeded in convincing Canadians that [Roma] are here to take advantage of the country rather than fleeing terrible persecution. By doing so, he’s re-victimizing them,” Csanyi-Robah said.

The immigration minister has said the new law aims to curb false applications to Canada.

While not referring specifically to Hungarian Roma, in an interview last April with The CJN, Kenney said 95 per cent of all Hungarian refugee claims worldwide target Canada.

They do so to access Canada’s generous social benefits and obtain federal work permits, as well as to get supplemental health benefits that exceed what they get in Hungary, he said.

“One would have to be blind to the facts to suggest there aren’t other factors at play in this… ‘irregular migration.’ This [situation] undermines and abuses our immigration system,” Kenney said. “Thousands of unqualified claimants consume massive resources and slow down the system for those bona fide claimants that need Canada’s protection.”

But the Roma community in Canada thinks the new law is rooted in racism.

The stereotype of “the Gypsy” in Canada continues to permeate and be promoted, Csanyi-Robah said.

Case in point: on Sept. 5, Sun TV host Ezra Levant launched into a hateful tirade against the Roma, known pejoratively as Gypsies, on his show The Source.

Sun TV later apologized to viewers.

His comments however, prompted the Toronto Roma Community Centre to launch a hate speech complaint with Toronto police on Oct. 11.

Levant said on his show that “Gypsy culture” is synonymous with “swindlers” and that most Roma make false claims to immigrate to Canada.

“The words ‘Gypsy’ and ‘cheater’ have become so interchangeable historically” that they spawned the verb “gypped,” he said, adding: “And too many have come here to… gyp us again, to rob us blind, which they have done in Europe for centuries.”

His rant continued for about eight more minutes. The investigation into his comments is ongoing, and police have referred it to the Crown attorney’s office.

“I am praying that we will receive some justice, finally. The only way to stop this barrage of institutional and media racism is to hold them accountable for their words,” Csanyi-Robah said.

According to Kenney’s office, Canada receives more asylum claims from the European Union than from Africa or Asia. The top source country for asylum claims is Hungary. Citizenship and Immigration Canada said Hungarians constituted 18 per cent of all claimants to Canada in 2011. It notes that the “vast majority of all asylum claims from the EU are abandoned, withdrawn or rejected.” Indeed, between 2009 and 2011, 94 per cent of Hungarian refugee claims were abandoned, withdrawn, or rejected by the IRB. Most of those were Roma.

Bill C-31 will also create a list of “safe countries” – or designated countries of origin (DCOs) – whose asylum claimants would be treated differently, because they hail from democratic countries that protect their citizens. 

“Designated countries of origin will be those nations that do not normally produce refugees, that are liberal democracies that respect human rights. The designation process is in no way arbitrary. It would require both well-defined quantitative and qualitative criteria be met. This includes the number of claims that are rejected, abandoned and withdrawn,” said Alexis Pavlich, a spokesperson for Kenney.  

The list is scheduled for release on Dec. 15. Hungary and the Czech Republic – another country with large numbers of Roma who’ve applied en masse to Canada – were rumoured to be on it.

In April, prior to the new law’s passage, Kenney’s office said the new immigration bill would benefit all refugee claimants, regardless of country of origin. It said claimants would still receive IRB hearings based on the merits of their cases and in an expedited fashion.

“Bill C-31 will benefit genuine refugees, as they will receive Canada’s protection in a matter of a few short months, compared to the current system, in which they must wait an unacceptable two years,” a spokesperson for Kenney, said at the time.

 But the shorter wait time isn’t an incentive and instead harms claimants’ chances of staying in Canada, according to Toronto immigration lawyer Max Berger. He also told The CJN that the new law is designed to “scare” claimants from DCOs, particularly Roma, from applying to Canada.

 “Those who do come in large groups may be detained with no review of detention for 14 days and then not again for six months. There will be no right to the new Refugee Appeal Division that claimants from other countries have. There will be expedited hearings in 30 or 45 days after arrival, which is hardly enough time to retain counsel and prepare,” he said. “Even those who win their refugee claims will not be able to get permanent residence or sponsor their spouses or children for five years. 

“The DCO label is like a scarlet letter that sends a message to refugee board judges that these claims ought to be rejected.”

The law has other detractors as well, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Union, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL), and Jewish Immigration Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto, among others. All of them contend that provisions in the law give too much power to ministers and don’t give refugees enough time to establish their cases before Canada’s Immigration Refugee Board (IRB).

Echoing Csanyi-Robah’s sentiments, they also all claim the government is not properly taking into account the reasons behind the surge in Roma applicants.

On Dec. 6, CARL said it was preparing to challenge the law in court.

“There will be many constitutional challenges to the new provisions, including the DCO list, that will be argued by many lawyers, including myself,” Berger said. 

According to EU statistics and reports, the Roma community continues to struggle with institutionalized discrimination. Its children are placed in segregated schools, forced evictions from homes are ongoing, and its women endure forced sterilization at the hands of the state.

“[Roma] are living in the same kind of abject poverty that can be found in sub-Saharan Africa. And that same filter of information still exists” in the western media, Csanyi-Robah said. “We don’t have an accurate reflection of the reality of the Roma in Europe anywhere in our media in Canada.”

Last April, Kenney said he believed many claimants, specifically Roma from Hungary, were making false claims and abusing Canada’s refugee system.

IRB statistics show a spike in Roma claims from 2010 to 2012. Roma from the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also been trying to reach Canada in greater numbers since the mid-2000s, though Czech Republic claims have dropped since Canada put a visa requirement on the country in 2009.

Hungarian Jews are also starting to feel skittish about an increasingly xenophobic landscape in Europe.

The rise of neo-Nazism, particularly in Hungary, where the ultranationalist Jobbik party and its paramilitary groups constantly harass Roma and Jews, is creating new fears among ethnic minorities there, Csanyi-Robah said.

   Numerous Jewish bloggers and activists in Hungary are being targeted for reprisals by neo-Nazi groups for taking part in pro-Roma and counter-Jobbik rallies.  

In March, Hungarian-Jewish author Akos Kertesz, 80, fled to Canada and sought asylum. He told the Hungarian News Agency he faced harassment and threats after making controversial statements last summer about Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

In June, the Toronto Board of Rabbis wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Kenney asking them to reconsider the DCO list, because it might turn away legitimate asylum seekers fleeing persecution, including Jews, from countries such as Hungary, despite growing concerns of rising antisemitism and anti-Roma attitudes.

“As Jews, we know that countries where the majority lives in safety can be dangerous for minority groups. Roma people living in Hungary, for example, face persecution that has been documented by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other human rights groups,” the board wrote.

Kenney travelled to Hungary in October to meet with Roma and Jewish leaders there. At the time, his office said he sought to “better understand the nature of discrimination faced by the community and the reasons for a large wave of irregular migration to Canada.

Asked last week whether the meetings have had any impact on Kenney’s formulation of the DCO, a spokesperson said no decisions have been made about which countries will appear on the list.

Follow-up questions to Kenney’s office asking whether the delay in releasing the DCO was due to Kenney’s reconsideration of the situation in Hungary were not answered.

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said his group has begun outreach to the Canadian Roma community and that it monitors the situation in Hungary and the EU through its affiliation with the World Jewish Congress (WJC).

“There have historically been co-operative efforts between the Jewish and Roma communities. We haven’t met with them formally recently, but it’s something we’re prepared to do, and we’re exploring whether there are things we should do to address some of the challenges they face, which are similar to the problems with perception issues our community has had over the decades,” he said.

Last month, WJC president Ronald Lauder slammed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for not taking decisive action against racism and antisemitism.

Particularly galling to the WJC were remarks by Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, Géza Jeszenszky, who wrote in a university textbook used at Budapest’s Corvinus University that all Roma are mentally ill.

Lauder said it was scandalous that a representative of a democratically elected government “should hold such absurd views on an ethnic community that has lived in his country for many centuries.”