It may be going far to say that the European Union’s Ambassador made a fool of himself in his testimony on Monday before the Commons Immigration Committee studying proposed refugee system reforms, Bill C-31.
But His Excellency Bernhard Matthias Brinkmann certainly did not do service to the cause of truth and candor, let alone compassion.
The subject was the "safe country of origin" provision of C-31, which would allow the Minister of Immigration to designate some countries, especially those in the European Union (EU), as safe and thereby deny asylum seekers from those countries full access to the Canadian refugee determination system.
The Government has been using the Hungarian Roma refugees as the poster children for this new restrictive measure.
Government MPs and witnesses favourable to C-31 keep saying that the Roma may indeed be victims of discrimination, but that does not make them refugees.
Former Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bissett told the Committee: "If you start considering everybody who is discriminated against in their own country as refugees you're in very serious trouble. There are 20 million untouchables in India."
The former Ambassador has obviously not read the recent report by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights’ Commissioner. That report deals in a comprehensive way with the human rights situation of the Roma in all 47 Council member states.
The Commissioner is blunt and frank in his grim assessment: "In many European countries, Roma are still denied basic human rights and suffer blatant racism."
Hammarberg adds that the European Roma are "deprived of basic rights such as education, healthcare, social assistance and the right to vote."
In one chilling chapter, the Commissioner documents the rise of Roma-hating, openly neo-Nazi militias in such countries as the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary.
These groups, Hammarberg reports, “are active in recruiting youths through a variety of means including hate music concerts.”
He continues: "They wear uniforms, use weapons and have increasingly tightened the net around the Roma by using verbal and physical threats and carrying out massive protests."
In addition, Hammarberg documents numerous recent acts of violence against Roma in such countries as Hungary -- violent acts that include the murder of whole families. The perpetrators of these hate crimes (which European authorities often fail to recognize as such) are either neo-Nazi extremists or unstable and impressionable people easily influenced by the extremists’ classic, scape-goating propaganda.
The favorite weapons in these crimes are Molotov cocktail and guns.
A gold star of "safe country" for human rights abusers?
The only Canadian Roma person to appear before the Committee, Gina Csanyi-Robah, of the Toronto Roma Community Centre, quoted from Hammarberg’s report last Thursday.
The Committee members and the Minister of Immigration would be well-advised to read that report before they decide to give the gold star of "safe country of origin" to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria or Romania. (Here is a link to the full report.)
As for the European Union’s Ambassador to Canada, it seems that he too has not done his research on what is really happening with the Roma in the countries he represents.
To get a sense of the EU Ambassador’s weak grasp of the truth, it would be useful to consider the exchange he had with NDP Immigration Critic Jinny Sims on Monday morning.
Sims starts out by recognizing the EU rule that member states cannot give refugee status to citizens of other member states.
The NDP critic explains that Canada is not bound by any such rule, and has, over a period of more than a decade, granted refugee status to numerous European Roma.
As well, Sims questions the figures Government MPs have been using to bolster their argument that Roma are not true refugees. Sims says the contention that 90 per cent of Roma asylum seekers withdraw or abandon their claims, or are rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board, is out of date. The current figure is closer to half.
The Committe exhcange speaks for itself
Here is what happened in Committee on Monday morning, word-for-word.
The person who answers Sims first question is Ioanna Patrascu an EU official who is an expert on asylum issues. She and her colleagues demur when asked about the Roma question, but forget – or neglect - to refer the Committee to Hammarberg’s very recent and pertinent report. The Committee Chair is Ontario Conservative MP David Tilson, the very model of fairness and affability:
Ms. Jinny Sims: Just for the record: Canada does recognize members of the Roma community as convention refugees. In the 2011 country report which we received the other day 165 applicants from Hungary were accepted by the IRB compared to 117 from North Korea. Also the numbers being withdrawn or abandoned in 2011 actually went from 95% previously right down to 55%.
So I just wanted to put that out there because as Canadians we have recognized that they are refugees who are deserving of that designation.
We've also heard information regarding Roma and EU countries. . .you made it very clear that there are no asylum seekers from member states within the European Union. . . The right of location within the EU is really limited. For example, you can move somewhere but after three months you have to have a job and once again you stipulated that.
We also know and we're heard reports that there's a high level of prejudice against Roma in EU countries and they're finding it hard to find jobs. Plus the economy doesn't help.
Mass deportation of Roma from France in 2010 is also another indication of the kind of persecution that they face.
Why do EU countries refuse to accept that some Roma fleeing Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia could be refugees when other countries such as Canada have officially ruled that numerous Roma are indeed convention refugees?
Ms. Ioana Patrascu: Just to say that we cannot comment without knowing particulars of cases. The decision to recognize, or not, refugee status depends on the personal circumstances of a person. Therefore just based on general statements we cannot know.
Ms. Jinny Sims: Thank you very much. . . Often we'll hear different arguments, but if Canada were to continue accepting Roma refugees would that jeopardize the current Canada-EU trade agreement negotiations? What has the EU communicated to the Canadian government on this issue? This would be to the European Commission or to his Excellency.
The Chair: I don't know whether these people know anything about trade.
Ms. Jinny Sims: I think his Excellency was getting ready to answer.
The Chair: I think he probably doesn't want to talk about it.
Ms. Jinny Sima: Then he will tell me.
The Chair: Ask former President Sarkozy.
Go ahead, Mr. Brinkmann.
His Excellency Bernhard Brinkmann: We are well aware of the fact that there are many Roma who come here to Canada to apply for asylum here. We are also aware of the fact that the majority abandon their request once it comes to appear before a committee and so on.
The reasons for that are also well known. The Roma have a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Many of them have no permanent employment or revenues. On the other hand we have discussed this with representatives of the government here. When they come to Canada they are accepted as asylum seekers and receive a cash payment from the day they are accepted as asylum seekers until their hearing or until the procedures come to an end which can take several years.
In our view there is a pull-factor here because as you are aware they come from their country of origin but they can move freely in Europe. They can live and work in other countries. They can be there as long as they don't become a burden to the social system of one country for more than three months where they can look for employment.
Hammarberg's reports completely contradicts the hapless EU Ambassador
Ambassador Brinkmann – meet recently-retired European Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg.
The Commissioner’s report on the Roma refutes just about everything His Excellency said.
In the first place, most of the European Roma are not nomadic wanderers. (The report asserts that this is just one of many false stereotypes of Roma). Roma live in whatever substandard housing they can get, given the high level of discrimination against them that Hammarberg so vividly describes.
In the second place, there is little chance that employers in most EU countries will hire Roma, given the massive anti-Roma prejudice that prevails throughout Europe, a situation that Hammarberg clearly documents.
Finally, as both lawyer Maureen Silcoff and Gina Csanyi-Robah pointed out last Thursday, if Roma in Canada were really welfare-seeking free-loaders they would not voluntarily abandon their claims, thus putting an end to the "free ride."
As Csanyi-Robah testified, many Roma in Canada are working or in school and many others are actively seeking employment.
"Pull factors" include Canada's successful experiment with diversity
There is no evidence that the Roma who came to Canada are primarily motivated by welfare, while there is significant evidence, if one were to ask the Roma themselves, that the main "pull factors" are the tolerant, accepting, multicultural nature of Canadian society.
Many Roma have told this filmmaker and reporter, and other journalists, that before coming to Canada they had never experienced a country where everyone seems to be, essentially, treated equally, and where skin colour, culture, ethnic origin and religion are of so little importance.
It would be impossible to read about all the abuse and hatred that Thomas Hammarberg decribes in his report and not conclude that if Roma seek to flee Europe they are motivated by anything other than “a well founded fear of persecution,” (to use the words of the Geneva Convention of 1951).
What the EU Ambassador condescendingly calls the "pull factor" of Canadian "cash payments" is not, based on the all the available evidence, a significant motivating factor for Roma who have come here.
Rather, those Roma say they have been almost literally chased out of Europe, and they believe that they have at last found, in Canada, a safe haven where they can cease being history’s perennial scapegoats.
Your Excellency, please read this report by an eminent fellow European
Hammarberg’s report on the Roma opens with a succinct account of the tragic history of Roma persecution in Europe, with special emphasis on the Holocaust.
The many thousands of Roma victims of the Holocaust were literally, as the title of a new Canadian documentary puts it: "A People Uncounted."
Here is what Hammarberg says about that piece of history. It should be obligatory reading for Ambassador Brinkmann and all other EU spokespeople.
"Only a few thousand Roma in Germany survived the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps. They faced enormous difficulties when trying to build their lives again. . . Many had their health ruined. For years, when some tried to get compensation, their claims were rejected.
For the survivors no justice came with the post-Hitler era. Significantly the mass killing of Roma people was not an issue at the Nuremberg trials. The genocide of the Roma was hardly recognized in public discourse. . .
Truth Commissions ought to be established in a number of European countries to establish the truth about the mass atrocities against the Roma people."
"A People Uncounted" will screen at the Al Green Cinema in Toronto, tonight, May 8, 2012, at 8:00 PM, as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.