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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Protecting Roma refugees: a unique perspective

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Roma Canadians observe a vigil in Toronto against human rights abuses and racism in Hungary.

Gina Csanyi-Robah
Special to The CJN

On Sept. 25, 2006, seven days after arriving as an intern at the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest, Hungary, I was given an opportunity to attend a roundtable discussion at the Central European University hosted by the Canadian government and the former Canadian ambassador to Hungary, Robert Hage. The purpose was to assess the social situation for Roma in Hungary. Prior to attending the meeting, I was informed that it was in fact an inquiry into whether Canada could again remove its travel visa restriction for Hungarians. Within an hour of being in the university in downtown Budapest, surrounded by Canadian government representatives, Hungarian academics, representatives of various human rights and social justice NGOs, and a scattering of Roma intellectuals and activists, I realized that I was in a very unique position. I was the sole Canadian-born, Hungarian Roma in the room.

In the day of presentations and discussions that followed, it became abundantly clear to Hage that the majority of Hungary’s Roma live in dreadful conditions and have genuine reasons for seeking a more hopeful existence in Canada, as thousands had done between 1997 and 2001, when a visa was not required to travel to Canada. The Canadians heard details of the deeply embedded systemic discrimination in Hungary that section 51-53 of the Geneva Convention Handbook of refugee determination describes as equivalent to persecution. Hungarian lawyer Lila Farkas, founder of the Chance for Children Foundation, described the serious problem of endemic racism, poverty, segregated and substandard schooling, and systematic placement in special-needs schools that has resulted in 50 per cent of Roma children in Hungary not achieving more than a primary education.

It would take three years and mounting pressure from the European Union for Canada to finally remove the visa requirement in 2009. In the meantime, things continued to worsen in Hungary, with a deteriorating economy and the rapid rise of the far-right nationalist movement. The Fidesz political party took power in the 2007, and a steady move toward fascism and centralization of power in the government began.

Even more menacing was the birth of Jobbik, Hungary’s third-most-powerful political party, which proclaims that Hungary is for true Hungarians, while confidently declaring itself to be anti-Roma and antisemitic. Jobbik maintains a stronghold in northeastern Hungary, where the majority of Hungarian Roma live and where Jobbik’s 47 members of Parliament and four members of European Parliament come from. This is where Miskolcs, Hungary’s second-largest city, is located and where the vast majority of Roma refugee claims originate.

It’s widely acknowledged that Jobbik and its paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guards, have modelled themselves on Hitler’s Nazi Party. Jobbik’s power and organization make Greece’s Golden Dawn party look amateurish. But the systemic discrimination that Roma face in Hungary pales in comparison to the direct threat posed by the Jobbik party. Its entire political platform is based on the vilification, demonization and dehumanization of Hungary’s Roma population. 

On Oct. 30, 2011, one year after I became executive director of Canada’s sole Roma organization, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney visited the Roma Community Centre in Toronto. Once again, I realized that I was in a very unique position. I was the sole Canadian-born Hungarian Roma in the room. In addition to preparing a complete information package with reports from Amnesty International, I arranged for Kenney to meet a roomful of people that included some notable human rights and social justice activists, as well as settlement workers who have helped countless Roma families and Roma refugee claimants.

 I carefully explained the situation in Hungary and included details of the serial murder spree between 2008 and 2009 that left eight Roma dead and 48 injured for life, which became a huge catalyst for Roma to flee to Canada in 2009. Unfortunately, the Canadian public has never heard of the small yet significant number of Roma refugees from Hungary who are politicians, engineers, journalists, teachers, and police officers. Talk of bogus refugees, organized crime, taking advantage of social benefits, and safe democratic European countries has drowned out the truth that people ought to know.

In the past decade, at least 1,000 Roma families have been acknowledged and accepted as genuine refugees in Canada by the Immigration and Refugee Board. Kenney also heard first-hand accounts of human rights abuses, terror and racially motivated violence that these Roma families had been subjected to from every sector of Hungarian society, including police and the Jobbik party.

Last May, refugee lawyer Maureen Silcoff and I testified together in Ottawa before a parliamentary committee on immigration and citizenship regarding Bill C-31, now called Protecting Canada’s Immigration and Refugee System Act. Once again, I found myself in a unique position as being the first Romani person in Canadian history to testify to the federal government. On June 18, I returned to Ottawa to present to a Senate committee. On both occasions, I also submitted a brief to explain in more detail some of the factors leading to Roma seeking asylum in Canada, as well as the contributing factors as to why there have been a significant number of withdrawn refugee claims. Lack of first-language support, few skills to navigate the complex refugee-determination system, fear and mistrust of institutions, feeling unwelcomed by the government, and negligent legal advice and representation by immigration consultants and a small number of lawyers were the main reasons for withdrawn refugee claims.

Despite our best efforts, Kenney did not reconsider the creation of a safe countries list, nor did he make an amendment to the legislation to include an independent panel of experts that would designate countries as either safe or unsafe. Kenney centralized all discretionary power in his office to designate countries as being either being safe or unsafe.    

On July 1, Bill C-31 became law. More recently, on Dec. 14, Kenney announced the “designated countries of origin list”(DCO), which includes 27 countries, of which 25 are member states of the European Union. In addition to all refugee claimants from DCO countries being denied access to basic health care, they are now being discouraged from coming to Canada to seek asylum by the threat of detainment and being subjected to a system where they’re set up to fail because of drastically reduced timelines that do not provide an opportunity to secure counsel and submit a strong, well-substantiated refugee claim. In addition, failed claimants are sent back faster with no opportunity to appeal or to access a judicial review of their case or a pre-removal risk assessment for at least 12 months after being rejected.

In preparations for the struggle to help Roma refugee claimants at the Roma Community Centre, we are working with our community partners and multifaith religious institutions to help secure sanctuary for families with extremely compelling refugee claims who have been rejected. We’re also applying for funding to run our in-house legal clinic for one full day, as well as seeking sources of medical care and engaging in ongoing advocacy and public education to raise awareness about the conditions that compel Roma to seek refuge here.

Who are our allies in this battle to access justice for Roma refugees? Some are community workers, social justice advocates, students, teachers, academics, lawyers, doctors, politicians, and concerned citizens. Many of those working closest with us are Jewish. Many of us feel strongly that Jews and Roma have an intimate connection from being Europe’s undesirables for centuries leading up to the shared experience of extermination during the Holocaust. Countless members of the Roma Community Centre, as well as Roma refugee claimants, lost relatives or entire families prior to and during World War II. My great-aunt was a survivor. I have interviewed a survivor and attended her funeral. I have cried with those who were orphaned. There is a mutual feeling of comfort, safety and understanding that we Roma and Jews feel for each other. We have come to each other’s aid in our times of need in the past, and, thankfully, I have learned that our hands and hearts are still there now.

Gina Csanyi-Robah is the Canadian Roma community’s chief spokesperson and executive director of the Toronto Roma Community Centre.

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