Years ago, when he was a simple cabinet minister, Jean Chrétien complained that politicians’ lives had become hemmed in by a too-curious media.

In his time, Chrétien said, Mackenzie King could disappear to London for weeks and the parliamentary press corps did not even note his absence. In the modern media era, however, every move a prime minister or cabinet minister makes could be scrutinized.

Strange then that the current Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister should have had meetings with foreign leaders and officials recently that attracted almost no media attention in Canada.

The most recent of those happened earlier this month at the NATO summit in Chicago. Canadian Prime Minister Harper met with his Czech counterpart Petr Nečas and, according to the Czech press, discussed the return of failed Czech asylum seekers now in Canada.

Canada wants a new treaty with the Czech Republic to facilitate that process. The Czechs are more interested in getting Canada to drop its visa requirement on Czech citizens.

This is all part of an effort to clear away irritants as Canada tries to negotiate a free trade agreement with the European Union (EU).

Are the Roma muddying the waters of Canada-EU relations?

The folks who are getting in the way of the trade deal are the Roma (or “Gypsies”), who started coming to Canada from the Czech Republic in the 1990s, seeking asylum. At that time the Roma refugee acceptance rate was very high – often exceeding 80 per cent.

Officials of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board judged that the Czech Roma were victims both of severe social and official discrimination and of violence at the hands of skinheads and others, from which the Czech government could not adequately protect them.

Today, the Council of Europe, Amnesty International and other reputable international bodies report that the human rights situation for the Czech Roma – and for the Roma in neighbouring Slovakia and Hungary – is much worse than it was fifteen years ago.

All evidence points to the fact that the Czechs, for instance, did not heed their great freedom fighter Vaclav Havel who said, way back in 1993, that the way post-Communist societies treated the “Gypsies” would be a litmus test for the degree to which those societies had become truly democratic.

As early as 1993 the New York Times reported that life had become almost intolerable for the Czech Roma:

“As in other formerly Communist countries, most Gypsies in the Czech Republic have lost more from the freedom of enterprise and opinions than they have gained from them. Unemployment among them is many times higher than the rest of the population because their jobs, mainly as unskilled industrial and mining labor, have been eliminated in the campaign to rehabilitate the economy.”

“At the same time, free speech has made Gypsies the targets of vituperation that under the Communism could be expressed only in whispers. Three Gypsies have been killed by skinheads since 1990, the Interior Ministry said, and five were slain by non-Gypsies for reasons courts have not determined.”

Today discrimination is worse and violence on the increase

What makes things even worse for the Central European Roma today is the growth of well-organized and often violent extreme right groups, who effectively recruit from the ranks of frustrated, unemployed and nationalist youth, and who exploit their right to “freedom of speech” to conduct frequent hate marches and demonstrations in or near Roma districts.

Plus, despite European Union pressure on such countries as the Czech Republic to do better by the Roma, rampant discrimination toward them continues in housing, health care, employment and especially education. The Czech Republic, for example, openly defies the EU by maintaining what are, in effect, segregated school systems.

And by all accounts, Hungary is quite a bit worse than the Czech Republic.

There, the extreme right is not only in the streets, but has 47 seats in parliament and according to many opinion polls is the most popular party among young people.

In fact, the phenomenon of organized, armed, extreme-right “militias” such as the Hungarian Guard became so embarrassing to the Hungarian government that it had to make a big show of passing a special law to control “uniformed criminality.”

That law much impressed Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in discussions with Hungarian officials last March. (Those discussions went entirely unreported in Canada, but there are Hungarian media reports of them.)

Kenney and Canadian government officials took the Hungarian government at its word, and did not bother to check the facts with reliable Hungarian media sources (which are quite rare these days as the current Hungarian government successfully works to suppress a free press) or with unbiased international sources such as the Council of Europe.

Had Kenney checked he would have learned that “militia” groups continue to operate openly, in public, and entirely tolerated by the current Hungarian regime (which, itself, grows increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic by the day).

How to decide when a country is “safe?”

The Canadian government is cuddling up to these Central European countries as it prepares to give them the Gold Star for good behaviour and declare them “safe countries of origin.”

Even a cursory examination of all the evidence available would convince any reasonable person that this is exactly the wrong time to give such a stamp of approval to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

This is what the U.S. State Department has to say about Hungary in its country report for 2011:

“Among the most important human rights problems during the year were societal discrimination and exclusion of the Roma population and violent right-wing extremism. Discrimination against Roma exacerbated their already limited access to education, employment, health care, and social services. Right-wing extremism, including public campaigns by paramilitaries to intimidate and incite hatred against Roma and other minorities, increased. Also the government began implementing a new law that restricts media freedom by increasing government influence over the media in general.”

The human rights situation may be marginally better in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and abuses more localized.

However, it is undeniable that since the fall of Communism in Central Europe, the human rights situation of the Roma – and of many other groups, such as the Jews of Hungary – has steadily deteriorated.

Still a last minute chance for a Canadian examination of “safe” countries

In Canada, the new proposed refugee reform legislation, Bill C-31, is still before Parliament. Although the government compromised on the question of detention for asylum seekers who come by “irregular means” (i.e., by boat), it continues to truculently defend the proposed new rule that will give the Minister unilateral power to declare “safe countries of origin.”

Jason Kenney never refers to or acknowledges the vast body of evidence on Roma abuse and persecution – evidence that comes from sources as diverse as the U. S. State Department and Human Rights Watch.

Instead, the Immigration Minister enthusiastically sides with officials of the democracy-challenged Hungarian regime when they say such things as: “It’s quite clear that these [Roma refugee] claims are socially motivated or submitted/supported by criminal gangs, and that is why it is important to have the police forces of our two countries work together.”

The man who said that was Hungarian government justice official Bence Rétvári, on the occasion of his meeting last March with Jason Kenney.

In other words, not only will we make it nearly impossible for the victims to seek asylum in Canada, we will actively collaborate with the governments of the countries in which they suffer persecution.

The House of Commons still has a chance to hear from reliable sources in Central Europe that can report on how “safe” those countries really are.

And the mainstream Canadian media could, at the last minute, still decide to independently investigate the human rights situation in countries such as Hungary that send thousands of asylum seekers to Canada every year.

What are the chances that will happen?


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...