Roma face persecution in Central Europe

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Hungarian Roma family in Toronto. Photo: Karl Nerenberg

Can Roma ("Gypsies") from "liberal, democratic, EU countries" really be refugees, fleeing persecution? I am no expert on refugee law, but if I were a Roma person living in Central Europe I know I would not feel safe.

Last year, while we were filming the documentary Never Come Back, Malcolm Hamilton and I visited Roma enclaves in the Czech Republic and Hungary. At first glance, it seemed to us that those communities were not that different from poor and under-serviced First Nations communities in Canada. Maybe that's why some Canadian politicians argue that the Roma who come here are really fleeing poverty, not persecution.

But make no mistake about it: The challenge the Central European Roma face is not merely one of dire and grinding poverty, fuelled by well-documented discrimination in every area -- from housing to employment to education.

The far bigger challenge the Roma face is the constant threat of harassment, intimidation and violence from a growing crew of bold and aggressive neo-Nazi and skinhead thugs.

If Canadian First Nations people were in the situation of the Central European Roma, Canada would be witnessing weekly rallies and marches of violent, extreme-right militias on First Nations reserves and in aboriginal neighbourhoods throughout the country.

And if Canada were like some Central European countries -- especially Hungary -- the extremist thugs would have numerous and vocal allies in Parliament.

Those who have been following political developments in Hungary know that the openly racist JOBBIK Party ("Movement for a Better Hungary") currently has 47 seats in Parliament and received nearly a million votes at the last election, in 2010.

In our film Never Come Back we show a recent JOBBIK television commercial that depicts the Roma as annoying mosquitoes, buzzing around and bothering upstanding "white" citizens. (Yes, the Hungarians and Czechs call themselves "white" and the Roma "black"!)

The political ad culminates with JOBBIK's leader slapping a mosquito. The message is clear: Vote for JOBBIK and we will deal firmly with the problem of "Gypsy crime" -- to use one of JOBBIK's favorite catchphrases.

Never Come Back also depicts a typical JOBBIK torch-light parade through a Roma neighbourhood. The marchers shout epithets and insults to the "dirty Gypsies." There is nothing subtle about their hatred or their intent to intimidate.

In preparing our film, we sought the insights of Hungarian sociologist Vera Messing, whom the Canadian government had consulted in 2002.

Ten years ago, Dr. Messing could honestly report a measure of progress in the human rights and economic situation of Hungary's Roma.

Today, Messing wishes the Canadian government would again solicit her views. The situation for the Roma has significantly deteriorated, in her expert opinion.

"In 2002," Vera Messing told us, "there were anti-Roma feelings, but it was not politically correct to express and Roma people were not physically threatened.

Now, that's unfortunately [changed]. So, one and a half years ago, there was a series of killings motivated by racial hatred. .. And although the perpetrators were found and now are in front of the Court. . . even today anti-Roma militia are allowed to march and threaten people in Roma villages ... the police do not intervene ... the police are there but do not do anything. And Roma people feel fear and feel attacked."

In Hungary, we visited the village of Gyöngyöspata. That is where an armed militia had occupied the Roma neighbourhood for two weeks, freely marching into peoples' homes and uttering death threats.

The police merely stood by, while the local "whites" seemed to happily support the militia. One soft-spoken, mild-mannered local man told us that the Roma had to be "taught a lesson."

"They have to learn that they are not the majority here!"

Some of the Roma from Gyöngyöspata have made their way to Canada, and they are now seeking refugee status. These are the people certain Canadian politicians have branded as "queue jumpers" and "bogus refugees."

When it comes to the Roma, it seems that some Canadian officials and politicians have bought into the negative stereotypes that are all too prevalent in Europe.

Based on our experience, the common stereotypes that Roma are all "criminal" and/or "lazy" are ridiculous. The hundreds of Roma Malcolm Hamilton and I met are good people, devoted to their families, who would very much like to work, if only someone would give them a chance.

And the Roma who have settled in Canada all express feelings of great love for their adopted country!

They tell us how grateful they are to have found a country where diversity is a fact of life -- is, indeed, celebrated as a vital part of our identity.

Canada is not like Europe, the Roma say. "Back home we feel as though we have targets on our backs. Here, we can blend into the Canadian mosaic."

But now, the Roma in Canada are bewildered by the fact that some politicians in this "multicultural paradise" have turned against them.

Last year, while we were filming in the Hamilton Roma community, there was a conference on anti-Semitism happening in Ottawa. Knowing I am Jewish, a number of Roma asked me: "Could you explain why the Government holds conferences for your people, while for us -- also victims of the Holocaust -- there are deportations?"

I wish I had an answer.

Never Come Back, which will be broadcast, in English, on OMNI-1 TV on Sunday, May 6, at 9:00 p.m. in Ontario and 10:00 p.m. in B.C. OMNI-1 will broadcast the Hungarian version a week later, on May 13 at the same times. OMNI-1 is on channel 16 in Canada's National Capital Region. This article first appeared in Embassy Magazine on April 18, 2012.

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