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Hill Dispatches

karl nerenberg's picture
Karl Nerenberg has been reporting on federal politics from Parliament Hill for rabble.ca since September, 2011. In his long career, he has won numerous awards as a broadcaster and documentary filmmaker.

Hill Dispatches: Canada to give its seal of approval to human rights abusers?

| May 15, 2012
Extremist Hungarian Guardists parade openly in Budapest's Heroes' Square

At last someone in Canada’s mainstream media has drawn attention to the frightening and growing phenomenon of neo-Nazi groups in Europe.

Although in much of Europe Muslims are the main neo-Nazi scapegoats, in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria – and especially in Hungary – the extremists focus their torment and hate mostly on the Roma.

The neo-Nazis harass and intimidate the Roma, and worse. There is a long list of violent acts that have continued unabated over the past five or six years.

What aroused the Canadian media out of its 'dogmatic slumbers' on this issue was the Greek election, where the neo-Nazis got themselves into Parliament for the first time.

The headline in Saturday’s National Post reads, 'Flirting with Fascism,' and the article starts by saying:

"Like vermin in a time of pestilence, neo-Nazi groups appear to be enjoying resurgence in a Europe plagued by increasing financial chaos and uncertainty."

The neo-Nazis have been doing well in Hungary for a while

The seven per cent of the vote that the far-right Golden Dawn party received definitely had some shock value.

But the electoral success of right-wing extremists is nothing new in Hungary.  In fact, just two years ago the extreme right JOBBIK party took nearly 17 per cent of the vote in Hungary!

At the time, the Canadian political and media elite barely took notice.

And let’s be clear about one thing – JOBBIK is not merely another populist, vaguely racist party along the lines of France’s Front National.

JOBBIK’s leader Gabor Vona is an open admirer of Adolf Hitler, and the JOBBIK party has proposed "concentrating" Hungary’s large Roma population in order to "better control them."

As well, JOBBIK has adopted the modus operandi of the fascist parties of the 20s and 30s in operating both in the political arena and in the streets.

Just as Mussolini had his Black Shirts and Hitler his Brown Shirts, Gabor Vona has his "Guardists," as they call themselves. These para-military street thugs get dressed up in traditional Hungarian Nazi colours and march through Roma communities shouting insults, occasionally breaking windows, and spreading fear.

They openly threaten Roma women and children with vile acts of violence, engage in obscene and hateful cyber-threats to Roma activists, and have, at the very least, provoked and inspired anti-Roma violence, including arson and murder.

There are similar street-level groups in the Czech Republic, though in that country the extreme right’s success at the ballot box has mostly been at the local, not the national, level.

Committee failed to call witnesses from Europe who would tell the full story

The Council of Europe has documented the growth of this terrifying anti-Roma extremism in an exhaustive report published only a few months ago.

Unfortunately the Canadian House of Commons Committee that heard testimony on the Government’s proposed refugee reform package, Bill C-31, did not call a single European witness who could attest to all of this growth in hate.

The Committee could have asked the Council of Europe’s former Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg to testify; but it did not. Hammarberg, who recently retired, is the author of the report which documents Roma persecution and discrimination in great detail.

Instead, the Committee heard from the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Canada, Bernhard Matthias Brinkmann. Incredibly Brinkmann said not a word about the discrimination and persecution the Roma experience in Europe.

The EU Ambassador talked about the "pull factor" of supposedly generous welfare that attracts Roma to Canada. Brinkmann somehow forgot to mention the well-known and extensively documented push factors: hatred, exclusion, violence and systematic discrimination in all areas of life.

The Committee heard a similar story from Hungarian diplomat Imre Helyes, who wanted the MPs to know that his government has clamped down on extreme right street-level thugs.

Many in Hungary dispute Helyes' claim

Hungarian journalist Laszlo Molnar reports that just a few weeks ago a large group of supposedly outlawed Hungarian Guardists held a swearing-in ceremony in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. This display took place in full view of the police, who, as is their wont, did nothing (see photo).

Many in Canada will say: "But JOBBIK is not in power in Hungary!"

That is true, but the ruling nationalist and authoritarian-conservative Fidesz Party is not always willing to challenge JOBBIK. Fidesz has to be wary of losing support on its right flank.

In addition, numerous Fidesz supporters share many elements of JOBIK's racist, anti-Semitic, anti-West and anti-democratic outlook.

At a recent Fidesz demonstration one could see participants waving banners that negatively associated the United States, the EU and the Jewish Star of David.

This is the context in which the current Canadian government wants to push through legislation that will allow the Minister of Immigration to designate Hungary and other European countries from which Roma are fleeing as "safe countries of origin."

'Safe country' asylum seekers will have very limited access to refugee system

When an asylum seeker from a country designated as safe arrives in Canada he or she will get a cursory 45 day hearing. If that person is refused refugee status, he or she will be shipped home immediately, without the right to appeal to the Refugee Appeals Division that the new legislation will create.

In addition, asylum seekers from safe countries of origin will be denied the right to seek what is called "humanitarian and compassionate" status in Canada. They will not even have the right to appeal to the Federal Court on technical, legal grounds from within Canada.

To Canadians who follow events in Hungary and other Central European countries (including many members of the Hungarian Jewish community in Canada) it is almost unbelievable that the Canadian government is preparing to anoint Hungary with the privileged status of "safe country."

Gina Csanyi-Robah of the Toronto Roma Community Centre has been following the progress of Bill C-31 with growing despair. She bravely told the Roma community’s story to the Committee about ten days ago and seemed to get a receptive hearing.

Fellow Roma, Robi Botos, himself a refugee from Hungary and now one of Canada’s leading jazz pianists, told his moving story at an NDP sponsored news conference last week.

None of it seems to have changed the Conservative MPs' minds.

All agree Roma suffer discrimination in Hungary and other EU countries

"Hungary has not been a safe country for some time, and it is certainly not a safe country now," Csanyi-Robah says. "It is not safe for Roma people, nor is it safe for many other non-Roma groups including Jews. If the situation continues to worsen, as most experts believe, Canada will be responsible for not providing a safe haven for Roma refugees in a time of crisis and upheaval in Hungarian and European societies."

Bill C-31 comes back from Committee to the Commons this week, almost unchanged.

The Government relented only on the highly contested detention provisions in the Bill. It agreed to amend a rule that would have allowed the detention of refugees who arrive by "irregular means" (i.e. for the most part by boat) for up to a year. Now that detention period will be shortened to a period of from two weeks to six months.

The "safe country of origin" provisions remain in the Bill.

In the reform Bill that the last Parliament passed with all party agreement there were also "safe country" provisions, but the process of determining safe countries was quite different. It included some analysis of the human rights situation in the countries concerned, and part of the process involved advice from a panel of human rights experts.

Bill C-31 gives all power to make that determination to the Minister. The only fact that the Minister is enjoined to consider is the rate at which asylum seekers from putative safe countries withdraw or abandon their claims or have them rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Even supporters of Bill C-31 admit that the Roma in many European countries suffer from discrimination.

Former diplomat James Bissett and lawyers Julie Taub and  Andrew Wlodyka all told the Committee they were in broad agreement with C-31 (although Wlodyka differed from the Government on a number of key points). At the same time, all admitted that no one can deny that the Roma suffer discrimination in Europe.

Taub even pointed out that present-day Hungary is only a border-line democracy, at best, and that there is rampant and growing anti-Semitism there.

The Geneva Convention defines a refugee as one who has a "well-founded fear of persecution." Experts on human rights will tell you that it is very difficult to say when discrimination becomes persecution. In fact, one lawyer who testified to the Committee noted that persistent, severe and unabated discrimination is quite often deemed a form of persecution.

The seal of approval to countries where discrimination is rampant

And so, it appears the Government is ready to give the "safe country" endorsement to countries that may or may not persecute Roma – but definitely subject them to discrimination.

Wouldn’t that be a bit like giving the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to "special, tasty cigarettes for children?"

The House is expected to vote on Bill C-31 before the end of this month. The Bill will then go to the Senate. Will the chamber of sober second thought do its job and make some effort to find out the truth of what is going on in Europe?



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