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Early in January of this year, Zsolt Bayer, a founder of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz Party and a confidant of Hungary’s current Prime Minister, told a journalist: “Most Gypsies are not suitable for cohabitation. They are not suitable for being among people. Most are animals, and behave like animals. They shouldn’t be tolerated or understood, but stamped out. Animals should not exist. In no way.”

 That hateful screed engendered some pushback. There were calls from Hungary’s beleaguered opposition forces for Prime Minister Victor Orban to strip his old friend of his Party membership and condemn what was, almost literally, a call to genocide.

But Orban did neither.

The forces of the extreme right — most prominently the neo-Nazi Jobbik Party — are so strong in Hungary that the notionally “mainstream” conservatives in power do not dare take the risk of driving supporters their way.

As one observer has noted, hatred of the Roma (Gypsy) minority is one of the few matters on which there is consensus in Hungary these days.

A prominent member of Fidesz recently compared his Party’s situation to former French President Sarkozy’s vis-à-vis France’s extreme right Front National. He argued that, like Sarkozy, he and his colleagues could not afford to openly confront Jobbik and Hungary’s anti-Roma feelings because they would risk the wrath of the voters.

Canada tells Roma: ‘Stay home’

 At around the same time as all this was happening, the Canadian government was busy putting up billboards in the Hungarian city of Miskolc advertising Canada’s new refugee rules and telling Roma that if they seek asylum in Canada they will likely be sent home in short order.

The Mayor of Miskolc, Akos Kriza, finds this to be quite insulting, but not out of a sense of wounded local pride or some humanitarian sentiment. He doesn’t want Roma who leave to come back to his city.

Kriza told a Hungarian newspaper that “any returning Roma will have ‘proceedings’ started against them. If they had sold their apartment or given it back, they cannot get another one. We will increase the number of checks on them by the authorities.”

He then added, ominously: “If the returning Roma have problems with finding a place for  their children, the state guardian’s office will deal with them.”

“Canada cannot send anyone back to Miskolc,” the Mayor concluded, “I will not yield on this point!”

But Canada is doing just that, with haste and something approaching enthusiasm.

When Immigration Minister Kenney announced that he was including Hungary on the list of safe “Designated Countries of Origin” he was asked if was not worried that this might give comfort to groups in Hungary the Minister himself had described as “xenophobic nutbars.”

Kenney’s response was that the safe country designation did not mean a country was perfect.

No country is perfect, he said, not even Canada.

Nor does the “safe” designation give a country “bragging rights,” Kenney said.

But human rights workers in Hungary fear that Canada’s now well-publicized reforms are, indeed, blowing wind in the sails of Hungary’s already very assertive extreme right.

The tragedy for the European Roma is that Canada was just about the last remaining safe haven for many of them. The European Union has established the odd, and entirely hypocritical, principle that no citizen of any member state can qualify for asylum in any other. Hungary’s Roma can become economic migrants within Europe; but they only have the right to remain in another country, without employment, for three months.

Even in a good economic climate, Roma face acute discrimination in employment almost everywhere in Europe. In the current economy, the job prospects for most “Gypsies” are almost nil.

Why is Canada moving so aggressively against the Roma?

One reason Canada has been so gung-ho to close the door tight to Roma is the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) Canada is negotiating with the European Union.

Not too long ago the Minister of Trade Ed Fast said the CETA would “boost bilateral trade with the EU by 20 per cent, and annually inject an extra $12 billion into Canada’s economy.”

That’s a powerful incentive to remove the “irritant” of Roma asylum seekers.

There are other incentives, as well.

Speaking to the Senate committee that examined the refugee reform bill, last fall, former diplomat and current Fraser Institute Senior Fellow Martin Collacott explained that while the Roma may be poor and suffer social discrimination, their situation, in his view, did not rise to the level of refugee, as defined by the Geneva Convention of 1951.

For instance, Collacott argued, if Canada were to grant asylum to Roma, millions of “low caste” so-called “untouchables” from India could seek refuge here on a similar basis.

And then, the former diplomat added tellingly that, in his view, Canadian Aboriginals — who suffer similar abysmal living standards to the Roma and, like the Roma, have been, historically, victims of racism — could make their own claims to asylum from Canada.

That was probably the most convincing argument of all for Canadian politicians.

We Canadians should not want to draw too much attention to others’ human rights abuses, Collacott was implying. Those others could too easily turn around and point at our own.


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...