Why are Hungarian Roma seeking asylum in Canada?

Aladàr Horvàth, a former member of the Hungarian parliament and now chairman of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation in Hungary and lecturer at Brown University in Rhode Island, describes repressive government laws disproportionately affecting Roma and a generalized hatred toward them that makes them feel physically threatened.
A high-profile Roma intellectual in Hungary with ties to a junior party in the country’s coalition government is seeking refugee status in Canada, which Roma rights activists say bolsters their claim that Hungarian Roma are fleeing to Canada because of a real fear of persecution, not for economic reasons.

István Kamarás is one of thousands of Hungarians who have come to Canada seeking asylum since Canada lifted visa requirements for Hungarian nationals in 2008. Hungary was Canada’s top asylum claimant source country in 2010, with 2,297 cases referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board.

It appears that it will hold the top spot again in 2011, as figures for the first nine months of the year show 2,545 Hungarian referrals, more than 1,000 above the second-highest source country, China.

While Canada doesn’t keep statistics on ethnicity, community members say Roma—a stateless ethnic group prominent in Europe and sometimes pejoratively called Gypsies—make up most of Hungary’s asylum claimants.

Roma advocates say both the Hungarian government and people discriminate against Roma leading them to flee. But Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has questioned why “the democratic European Union” is sending Canada more asylum claimants than Asia or Africa.

The Hungarian government has said most Hungarians coming to Canada do it for economic reasons, to find jobs and a better living. Canada has accepted less than 10 per cent of the Hungarian refugee claims since 2009.

Mr. Kamarás is a historian and political scientist who headed a program meant to help talented Roma get an education to become leaders in Hungarian society.

Before leaving Hungary, he said, in emailed responses to questions from Embassy translated into English, he was also the president of a group acting as the Roma arm of the KDNP, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, a junior partner in government to Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz. He said he was also the unpaid adviser on Roma affairs to Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, a member of KDNP.

The party and Hungarian government have distanced themselves from Mr. Kamarás since news of his flight to Canada broke in Hungary, saying he didn’t have an official job advising Mr. Semjén. The Hungarian English-language news website Politics.hu reported that he had been advising Mr. Semjén and Hungary’s state secretary for social inclusion, but became convinced they weren’t listening.

The website quoted a Hungarian daily, Népszava, as reporting that Mr. Kamarás and his family moved to Canada over the summer, “ostensibly because he did not wish to give his name to what he called the government’s plan to keep the Roma population impoverished.”

Mr. Kamarás confirmed that in the email and added that he left “because of the ever-growing, strengthening, aggressive prejudice against Roma.”

The Hungarian government this fall released a 10-year Roma social inclusion strategy, and an action plan that would see the government spend $900 million in the next three years to improve the Roma people’s health, employment, housing, and education situation.

Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, earlier this week confirmed that Mr. Kamarás is in Toronto seeking asylum.

“It’s important for us to share this because the [Canadian] government has created this kind of belief among Canadians that it’s only the lowest of the low coming here, that it’s Roma just coming here for economic reasons to get a fatter welfare cheque—stuff that’s completely unfounded,” she said in a phone interview.

“But if you have people coming now who were aides to the government…feel that it’s not safe for them to continue living in Hungary any longer, I think that this brings the conversation to a different level now. Maybe to a level that we could start talking honesty about the problem that exists over there.”

Hungarian Deputy Head of Mission Tamás Király said he didn’t know the specifics of Mr. Kamarás’ case, but that he finds it “paradoxical.”

“Obviously he’s not the only high-profile Roma intellectual in Hungary who is working with the government on the Roma action plan, and somehow he turns out to be the one who somehow found this way of expressing his disagreement of how or which direction things are going,” he said.

Mr. Kamarás said other Hungarian Roma leaders know their community’s situation is unacceptable and untenable, but because of intimidation and bribery, they don’t criticize the government.

Economic migration, or fear of persecution?

Mr. Király noted another case of a Hungarian couple. The husband was working for the Hungarian police. He said they emailed his embassy about how to apply for refugee status in Canada.

“We have to explain to them that if they apply for refugee status in Canada that it means that they are escaping from us, from the Hungarian government—so we are not even supposed to know about it,” he exclaimed.

There is a lot of misinformation about what a refugee claim means, he said.

“We do find that to a large extent the migration to Canada is an economic migration, to find jobs and to find a better living.”

Mr. Kenney has also questioned the veracity of Hungarian Roma refugee claims. In April 2010, he highlighted in the House of Commons a police investigation in which some Roma asylum seekers were accused of being “coached to come to Canada, make a false claim, and then register for provincial welfare benefits.”

The year before, he called Czech Roma claims “bogus.” Canada imposed visa requirements in 2009 on the Czech Republic and Mexico, two of the top refugee claimant source countries at the time.

Earlier this year, the National Post reported that Mr. Kenney said the Hungarian Roma influx is “very peculiar,” “bizarre,” and “very well-organized.”

But Roma advocates such as Aladàr Horvàth, whom Ms. Csanyi-Robah called the Martin Luther King of the Roma community, have a different take. Mr. Horvàth is a former member of the Hungarian parliament for a party that opposes the current government. He is now chairman of the Roma Civil Rights Foundation in Hungary and is a lecturer at Brown University in Rhode Island.

The Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto invited Mr. Horvàth to speak on the Hungarian Roma situation on Dec. 7. While in Canada, he also travelled to Ottawa to speak to members of the House international human rights subcommittee, and Embassy.

Mr. Horvàth, speaking through an interpreter, described repressive government laws disproportionately affecting Roma and a generalized hatred toward them that makes them feel physically threatened.

For instance, he talked of a “forced labour” law that is set to come into effect on Jan. 1 that he said could see jobless people travel up to 300 kilometres to do public works projects, and live in containers in guarded labour camps.

He said it’s already being modelled in Gyöngyöspata, a town northeast of the country’s capital, Budapest, where conflict between right-wing militants and Roma erupted last spring, creating international headlines and leading to what some media reported as an evacuation of about 270 Roma residents.

Government officials called it a pre-planned holiday. Mr. Horvàth called the labour law “a Gypsy law,” saying it disproportionately affects the Roma and comparing it to anti-Jewish laws Hungary introduced in the 1930s and 1940s.

He said for the last 25 years there has been a “cold war” between Hungary’s political right and left, leading to a weakened state, and the current state of political affairs in which Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s centre-right government and the far-right party Jobbik “feed off of each other” displaying neo-fascist tendencies.

He described an 800,000-strong underclass in deep poverty, equivalent to that of sub-Saharan Africa, about 35 to 40 per cent of which is Roma.

Mr. Király, the embassy official, gave somewhat different numbers, but they showed a similar trend: the Roma are over-represented in Hungary’s poor population. Of the about 750,000 Roma in Hungary (7.5 per cent of the total population), he said 500,000 to 600,000 are in deep poverty. That makes up about half of the extremely poor people in the country.

“If you look at the numbers, this is serious,” said Mr. Király.

“Obviously, the Roma community in Hungary is in a difficult situation, and it cannot be changed overnight. So the government strategy and action plan is medium- and long-term. And of course the government is doing immediate steps as well.”

He acknowledged that government plans in the last 20 years haven’t led to significant improvements, but said the current plan is “more clearly focused and more co-ordinated.”

Anti-discrimination mechanisms within it allow for mediation and conflict management, he said, to patch up social tensions. And, he said no one is forcing anyone to move as part of the labour law Mr. Horvàth mentioned. But if someone has to commute more than three hours to work each day, the employer must offer free accommodation for the workers.

The jobs are fixed-term, unskilled, and mostly through public employers that must pay more than what the person would receive on welfare. No one’s forced to do these public works, he said.

Canada wades in 

While Hungarians argue about whether the situation for Roma is getting better or worse in Hungary, Canada is also trying to assess the situation. The Toronto Sun reported in October that up to 50 Hungarian Roma per day were filing refugee claims at Toronto’s Pearson airport. A record 110 claimants arrived in one night that month.

That surge prompted an uptick in Canadian government interest in Hungary’s Roma, said Mr. Király, although the two countries have been in regular contact over the refugee issue since the influx began.

Canada’s ambassador to Hungary, Tamara Guttman, took part in a Canadian government fact-finding mission, and has in the past few weeks been travelling around the countryside to places with large Roma populations.

She spoke with government ministries in charge of social inclusion, the foreign ministry, and the ministry of interior, said Mr. Király.

“The government of Canada is concerned about the rising number of refugee claims from Hungary, the vast majority of which are unfounded,” wrote Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson Nancy Caron in an email to Embassy in August.

There has been constant speculation since Hungary topped the list of refugee claimant source countries that Canada would slap visa requirements back on Hungarians. Canada’s typical response has been that it’s monitoring the situation.

Refugee reform legislation set to come into force in June 2012 will allow the government to pen what it calls a designated countries of origin list, which is essentially a list of countries that don’t normally produce refugees and have a strong human rights record. Asylum seekers from those countries would be fast- tracked through the process.

“We are fairly confident that if a designated countries of origin list will be applied in a new system, that Hungary will be on that,” said Mr. Király.

The government has said it’s too soon to know if any countries will be designated when the act comes into force.

Robert Austin, a senior lecturer at the Munk School’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and co-ordinator of the Hungarian Studies Program, which invited Mr. Horvàth to speak, said such fact-finding missions in areas where the Roma are facing the biggest challenges are important. He suggested non-partisan, non-government third-party experts should conduct them.

Mr. Austin said that the reasons why Hungarian Roma are seeking refugee status in Canada are not black and white.

“I don’t think everyone here is a refugee, and I don’t think everyone here is economic,” he said.
“People construe it as if either the Hungarians are bad and the Roma are good, or the Roma are bad and the Hungarians are good. But the situation is way more complicated than that.”


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