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Czech Roma angered with the re-imposition of visa requirements by Canada

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“We are outraged at the comments of Minister Kenney, blaming the victims of persecution for the backlog of refugee claims in Canada,” said Bill Bila, Vice President Roma Community Centre.

 The Roma Community & Advocacy Centre (RCAC) was started in September, 1997, after the unexpected arrival of over 3,000 Czech-Roma refugees in Canada. This was the first time in Canadian Immigration history that a large number of people arriving in Canada in a short period of time requested Convention-refugee status and declared themselves to be Roma fleeing persecution because of their ethnic identity.

 Since the arrival of the Czech-Roma refugees, more Roma refugees have arrived from Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia and other countries of the former Soviet Bloc where Roma face active persecution and systemic discrimination.

According to an article by Tiffany G Petros in the November 27, 2000 edition of the Central European Review, “The Czech Republic is home to between 250,000 and 300,000 Roma, who make up the country's second largest minority population after Slovaks and have experienced long-term discrimination. It was hoped that the collapse of Communism in 1989 would improve human rights conditions for all.

“But in recent years the Roma in the Czech Republic have experienced increasing discrimination in the areas of education, employment, housing and health care. In addition, Czech Roma have become the target of racial attacks. In the wake of such developments, the issue of Roma rights has attracted attention not only from domestic politicians and civic organizations but also from the international community.

“Discrimination in the area of education for Czech Roma has been particularly pronounced. For example, "special schools," were set up for mentally handicapped children. While the Roma make up less than three percent of the total Czech population, 70 to 75 percent of students sent to the special schools are members of the Roma community.

“In 1999, Roma unemployment in the Czech Republic was reported to be between 70 and 90 percent. The situation did not improve in the year 2000. Lack of education, as well as employer discrimination, directly contributed to the ongoing high unemployment rates within the Roma community. Housing and health conditions also remained much worse for the Roma than the mainstream population throughout 1998 and 1999.

“Roma immigration to Canada and the United Kingdom began in 1997, after a Czech television program ran a story on the acceptance of Roma in these countries. More than 1000 requests for asylum, citing discrimination and violence in the Czech Republic, were filed by Roma between 1997 and 1998.”

Over 5,000 Czech, Hungarian and Slovak Roma have settled in the Greater Toronto area in the last ten years, with over 60,000 living in Canada today.

Standing at the lectern during Thursday’s press conference at the Roma Community Centre, Bila continued, “He paints a picture of a system crippled due to an alleged overflow of fraudulent claims, singling out Czech Roma people and Mexican citizens.”

In the 1980’s, Bila said the number of successful refugee claimants in Canada was approximately 21,000 per year. But in the last decade, only 11,000 refugee claimants were granted asylum in Canada. In 2001, there were over 45,000 refugee claimants; in 2008, only 36,000.

“So if the system is crippled it’s because the IRB (Immigration and Refugee Board) is not staffed properly,” said Bila, “and our communities will not be the scapegoats of the situation.”

By re-imposing visa requirements, he said the Canadian government is creating a policy of “None is too many” while increasing the suffering of our families and friends in a country where they cannot rely on the police or the legal system to protect them from systemic discrimination in healthcare, education, housing or acts of violence from neo-Nazi groups.

Gwendolyn Albert, a human rights activist in Prague, wrote in her story published in the July 1 edition of the World War 4 Report that “Neo-Nazi demonstrations and attempted pogroms on the Roma in the Czech Republic cost taxpayers millions during the run-up to the recent European Parliament elections. The November 2008 neo-Nazi riots in Litvínov required the presence of 1,000 police and were the largest police action in the country since the anti-IMF/World Bank demonstrations in Prague in the year 2000. They have since been followed by other attempted pogroms, many of which have met with peaceful but firm resistance from the Roma community.

“In the early morning hours of April 19, perpetrators who still remain at large threw three Molotov cocktails into the home of a Roma family in the village of Vítkov, Czech Republic. The ensuing blaze injured three people, including a two-year-old girl who is still fighting for her life in the Ostrava Teaching Hospital, where she is being treated for second and third-degree burns over 80 % of her body. The grandmother of the family saw a car in front of the house and heard a man yelling "Hey, Gypsies, burn!" before it drove away. The water mains to the house had been shut off prior to the attack and the house was completely destroyed.

“This particular arson attack was followed by yet another on a Roma family, fortunately unsuccessful, during May in the village of Zdiby, not far from Prague. These attacks, the rise in neo-Nazi activity across the country during the past year, and the impunity with which the perpetrators operate are one reason so many Czech Roma are once again fleeing to Canada, mirroring a similar exodus during the mid-1990s that caused Canada to institute a visa requirement for all Czech citizens (lifted in 2007).”

Through 2008 and 2009, 85 per cent of the Czech Roma were accepted as convention refugees by the independent IRB adjudicators.

“Thus calling the Czech Roma refugees claims bogus is totally wrong,” he said. “These types of comments by our immigration minister will seriously prejudice thousands of upcoming cases still waiting to be decided by the IRB.

Meanwhile, Bila promised that the Roma community will fight the report commissioned by the IRB on the Czech Republic in the federal courts, arguing that the report is beyond the mandate of the quasi-judicial body to issue a report on a single ethnic group. They’ve also organized a letter writing campaign and a petition to inform the public and elected leaders of what they say is “a gross miscarriage of injustice.”

The IRB sent two immigration officers to the Czech Republic in March to gather background and help process the rising number of asylum claims.

The officers visited 24 government and non-government organizations, and conducted interviews with more than 30 experts and professionals.

In their report, the immigration officers said they found that at times, Roma are not protected by the government and often face discrimination from local police, despite programs aimed at improving relations between authorities and socially excluded communities.

Immigration minister Jason Kenney said the report supported his contention that the Roma minority in the Czech Republic, which has emerged as a major source of refugee claimants in Canada, didn’t face state-sanctioned discrimination.

"The report, as I’ve read it, says there are difficulties for Roma in the Czech Republic, we all know that, but the government is doing its best to improve the legal treatment of, and economic opportunities for, members of that community," Kenney told Canwest News Service.

"The Czech Republic is a full member of the European Union and in compliance with the European human rights law, and I think the report underscores that there is no policy of state-sponsored persecution against Czech Roma."

Czech Roma activist Karolina Banomova, who came to Canada in 1997 seeking asylum said, “Many Czech politicians tried to solve Roma problems by creating Roma ghettos, building a wall between “proper” citizens and “inadaptable” citizens.”

A 2006 study showed that more and more Romanies are finding themselves literally living on the edge of society, with no jobs, few chances of ever finding one, and a grim life ahead of them.  “Leading sociologist Ivan Gabal says his teams of sociologists found a total of 310 neighbourhoods inhabited almost exclusively by Romanies, usually run-down housing estates or ramshackle buildings on the edge of town. The study put the total population of these areas at 80,000 - that's around a third of the country's total Roma population. But the most alarming fact was that the number of ghettos is growing.”

Banomova asked, “Who wants to live in a society where 90 per cent say they hate Roma?”

She said Canada has given the Roma a good chance and equal opportunity, where they can work and contribute like other citizens.

“So why can’t our brothers, sisters and families back home get the same chance as us?” asked Banomova.

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