The Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney, had some pretty tough words on Friday for a country he has, in the past, described as a “liberal democracy” that “respects human rights.”
At a news conference in Ottawa on Friday, Kenney said that during a recent visit to that country he noted “a very disturbing rise of xenophobic extremism.”
He told reporters he was very disturbed to hear accounts from members of ethnic and religious minority communities about “expressions of hatred and xenophobia” and was “deeply concerned” about the actions of neo-Nazi political extremists he referred to as “crazy and hateful xenophobic nutbars.”
The Minister added, pointedly, that he “had very blunt discussions with counterparts” in that country’s government, telling them they “should use every possible measure, not only to protect the minority communities, but also towards the social inclusion” of one particular minority community.
The Minister’s take-away from his visit echoes what human rights organizations, and such bodies as the Council of Europe, have been saying for years.
More recently, those folks have been joined in their cries of alarm by the likes of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress.
Less than two weeks ago, Lauder wrote:
“The return of an ideology that many thought was a thing of the past is spearheaded by [an] extremist . . .movement and its allies. It seems to have shifted the political epicenter, despite the fact that [the extremist movement] is an opposition party. And some of [the extremist] ideology seems to have found fertile ground in mainstream politics.”
The country at issue is Hungary, as you may have guessed.
And despite of all of these expressions of alarm and concern, on December 15 Canada will almost certainly declare that Hungary is a safe “Designated Country of Origin”.
That designation will mean asylum seekers from Hungary will face an extremely foreshortened process and will have almost no chance of being accepted as refugees in Canada.
Removing an irritant in Canada-Europe trade negotiations
Kenney made his surprisingly blunt and candid comments about Hungary at the end of an event staged to announce the government's plans to implement the refugee reform Bill C-31, which Parliament passed last spring.
The reform C-31 ushers in is multi-faceted, and, to give the Government its due, does do some good.
Notably, C-31 takes the salutary step of setting up a professionally-staffed “Refugee Appeal Division”.
That body will give asylum seekers who get turned down by the Immigration and Refugee Board (made up of political appointees) a chance at a fact-based appeal.
But C-31 denies that right of appeal to refugee-claimants from countries designated as “safe.”
The government has already telegraphed that it wants to name all European Union countries as safe. To do otherwise would put a major spanner in the works of the current Canada-Europe Trade Agreement negotiations.
In fact, Kenney said on Friday that when the new measures come into play, Canada will be able to lift the visa requirements on the Czech Republic, a requirement which was imposed to stem the tide of Roma from that country seeking refugee status in Canada.
Lifting that visa will make Europe very happy, and eliminate one serious irritant in the trade agreement talks.
Moving within Europe not really an option
Hungary is, currently, the main source of Roma refugee claimants to Canada, and until not too long ago the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) tended to view these claims favourably.
However, after the Minister characterized the Roma as “bogus refugees,” a little more than two years ago, the acceptance rate -- surprise, surprise -- went way down, at least for a while. It has picked up somewhat recently, perhaps because of the deteriorating human rights situation Kenney himself has noted in Hungary.
The government and its supporters claim Hungarian Roma who fear persecution or violence from an ever-growing army of extremists can move to any of 28 countries in Europe.
Sadly, that is not quite true.
The European Union (EU) has created some odd legal fictions about itself, one of which is that being a member of the EU means, a priori, that you respect human rights. The EU, thus, stipulates that citizens from one member country may not seek or be granted refugee status in another members country, with no exceptions.
People can move freely from country to country in the borderless EU, but may not necessarily be able to stay.
Hungarian Roma, for instance, can de-camp and move to another EU country if they wish. But, if they do not find work in that other country, they’ll most likely be kicked out after three months.
Tragically for the Roma -- who, as Kenny acknowledged, have faced persecution for generations -- Canada had seemed to be their best hope for some kind of reasonable and normal life.
For Roma from mostly homogeneous, “white” Hungary, life in multi-coloured, multi-cultural Toronto is almost like a dream come true. They feel they have found a safe place where they don’t stick out and walk around with targets on their backs.
Of course, some of the entrenched European bigotry toward “Gypsies” has crossed the Atlantic -- see under “Levant, Ezra: hatemonger extraordinaire”.
It was refreshing, on Friday, to hear the Minister, for once, acknowledging how awful life is for so many Roma in Eastern and Central Europe.
Major concern among Jews these days, as well as Roma
It seems that his trip to Hungary had an impact on Kenney.
In part, this may be so because, of late, race hatred in Hungary has been aimed not only at the 800,000 Roma but at that country’s more than 100,000 Jews.
If the Roma don’t count politically to this Conservative government, the Jews definitely do.
This Conservative government’s efforts to curry favour with Canada’s Jewish community, strategically concentrated in a number of key urban federal ridings, are well known.
Canada’s no vote on the Palestinian membership question in the U. N., earlier this week, is only the latest example of that.
Given that political contingency, Kenney might want to pay careful heed to what the President of the World Jewish Congress had to say about Hungary, very recently.
“Some of the news that has come out of Hungary in recent months and years is alarming,” Ronald Lauder wrote, “The situation of Jews in a country can be seen as a bellwether. We are particularly sensitive to nationalistic and chauvinistic tendencies.”
Lauder went on to describe some specific disturbing incidents:
“Earlier this year, the 89-year-old former Chief Rabbi József Schweitzer was accosted near his home in downtown Budapest by a man who swore at him and shouted ‘I hate all Jews.’”
“Last year, the mayor of Budapest -- a member of the prime minister’s party -- appointed a radical nationalist as director and a well-known anti-Semite as intendant of the Új Színház theater. The prime minister refused to intervene.”
“Meanwhile, uniformed groups are parading through the streets of towns across Hungary, with torches in their hands. It is no coincidence that the symbols they wear on their uniforms remind many of that of Ferenc Szálasi’s fascist Arrow Cross Party. The return of an ideology that many thought was a thing of the past is spearheaded by the extremist Jobbik movement [which garnered 17% of the vote in the last Hungarian national election] and its allies."
The World Jewish Congress leader then expressed solidarity with Hungary's Roma people:
“Whereas Jews seem to be always a ‘natural’ target for such hateful ideology, the situation in Hungary today is even worse for the Roma. They not only face similar resentment and are collectively defamed as a group of ‘criminals’. They are also almost constantly harassed, with violent thugs attacking innocent people.”
Finally -- Kenney’s view that the Hungarian government is doing what it can about the situation notwithstanding -- Lauder concluded by telling the Hungarian conservative-nationalist Prime Minister, Victor Orban, he is failing to do what he must:
“The time has come for the Prime Minister to clearly position himself against nationalists and extremists who want to do away with liberal democracy. Mr. Orbán must not only speak out loud and clear against those who agitate against Roma and Jews and other minorities. He must also take effective measures to rein them in.”
Granting a country the ‘safe’ designation can have significant, if unintended, consequences
If the World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder’s words were not sufficient to give the Canadian Immigration Minister pause, he might want to consult recent news reports on a Hungarian Member of Parliament’s proposal that Hungary’s Jews should be registered on lists as “threats to national security.”
Or, Kenney could consult the respected German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, which just days ago, explained how Hungary’s extreme right Jobbik Party – the party, to use Kenney’s words, of “nutbars” – has successfully pulled Orban’s respectable, governing Fidesz Party into race-hate territory.
“In reality,” Der Spiegel reports, “Fidesz has moved ever closer to the positions of the right-wing extremist Jobbik party, partly to lure voters from the right and partly out of conviction. In September, Prime Minister Victor Orbán held a blood-and-soil speech on Hungarian values that bordered on right-wing extremism in the southern Hungarian village of Ópusztaszer on the occasion of a memorial dedication. In May, Hungarian Parliamentary President László Kövér took part in a memorial for the writer József Nyírö, who was a leading cultural ideologist for the Arrow Cross. In Hungary's current national curriculum for its schools, the works of several anti-Semitic authors are listed as recommended reading.”
The unavoidable truth is that granting safe Designated Country of Origin status to any country will not be a mere technical administrative matter.
It will inevitably have far-reaching political consequences.
There can be almost no doubt that the minute Canada bestows the honour of “safe” country on present-day Hungary there will be defiant cries of victory from that country’s violent militias and legions of admirers of 1930s and 1940s style Fascism.
It might be an unintended consequence; but it should not come a surprise to Jason Kenney and this government.