On August 2, 2019, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland and the minister of canadian heritage and multiculturalism, Pablo Rodriguez, issued a joint statement commemorating Romani Genocide Remembrance Day.
While remembering the 1.5 million Romani people murdered by Nazis and collaborators in a holocaust known as Porajmos (The Devouring), the ministers added: “We also recognize that Romani communities in many countries around the world have historically been, and continue to be, marginalized in all areas of life. Romani women, especially, still face significant discrimination and social exclusion … We vow to never again let such atrocities be committed against anyone, anywhere.”
Despite that vow — and in a manner reflecting the Trudeau government’s pattern of decrying the very actions it regularly commits — the Canadian immigration bureaucracy had just 10 days earlier issued a deportation order against Ottawa Roma refugee Celina Urbanowicz, whose life will be in danger if forced to leave the country she has called home for 23 years.
Amnesty International writes that, if deported to Poland, a woman of Urbanowicz’s profile “would face multiple risks on account of their intersectional vulnerabilities stemming from their identity as a Roma woman, wife of a Muslim man, and as the mother of a lesbian woman.” Ronald Lee, the late expert on Roma history and culture, writes: “She will face severe discrimination, extreme persecution and be under imminent fear for her life because she has been condemned as gonime po trajo (‘shunned for life’).”
For Urbanowicz, a mother of five, the past year has been particularly difficult. Out of the blue, her husband was deported last June and now faces incredibly challenging living conditions, forced to sleep on a garage floor in a country where, as a Muslim Roma man, he is clearly not welcome. Meanwhile, two of her daughters also received notices of impending deportation, and have been actively campaigning to raise awareness of their family’s plight.
During last fall’s federal election, Celina’s daughter Roksana frequently showed up at all-candidates’ meetings in the Ottawa area, and camped out next to the Prime Minister’s Office during a bone-chilling December week that saw her contract pneumonia and bronchitis. She also began a petition that has since garnered over 5,000 signatures.
Roma refugees tarred as ‘bogus’
Roma refugees like Urbanowicz and her family are not in the news as much as they were during the Harper government years, when they became a political football and media scapegoat in a perverse mirroring of the discrimination they faced in Europe. Then-immigration minister Jason Kenney introduced discriminatory measures that sought to stem the flow of Roma refugee arrivals by claiming that the European countries from which they fled were “safe,” despite the extensive documentation proving otherwise. Kenney also tarred Roma refugees as “bogus claimants.” In the decade following those measures, the Federal Court has three times struck down key sections of the legislation because of its clearly discriminatory effects, most recently last March.
The anti-Roma sentiment of those years clearly infected decision making at the Immigration and Refugee Board, which in 2013 accepted only 21 per cent of the Roma cases it heard. But by 2018, that number had risen to 70 per cent. “What that tells us is when you get rid of the political campaign against Roma refugees, Canada’s administrative processes find that most Roma refugees, in fact, do have a well-founded fear of persecution,” said Sean Rehaag, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Throw in the poor legal representation that imperiled the lives of hundreds of Roma refugees (with some of those lawyers facing subsequent disbarment) and one could begin to ascertain why acceptance rates were not as high as they should have been.
In the case of Urbanowicz, hers is a journey not unlike far too may refugees whose cases have been rejected. Originally from Poland, Celina was forced to marry against her wishes and survived extensive abuse, from which she eventually ran away. When she met and fell in love with her current husband, she was disowned by her family because he was a Muslim and Yugoslav. But they found no safety in Yugoslavia as they, along with other Roma, were targeted by ethnic Albanians.
The family arrived in Canada in 1997, fleeing the war in Yugoslavia. From not being provided a translator at her original hearing in 2000 to having her then lawyer fail to submit critical documents, Urbanowicz’s original claim was turned down. The family have lived without status ever since, establishing themselves in the community as best they can and dreaming of one day becoming citizens.
Cruel limbo of non-status
But living with non-status is stressful and dangerous. As the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants points out, “Non-status migrants are routinely denied their fundamental rights and discriminated against on the basis of their immigration status. Most cannot access healthcare or any of the other basic services provided to other residents. They are vulnerable to many forms of abuse because the law often does not protect them, in principle and/or in practice. Undocumented families live in a state of constant stress and fear. Precarious or non-status workers are routinely taken advantage of and exploited. Children are denied education, including Canadian-born children of people without immigration status, or worse, they are reported to the police by school staff.”
Those who have lived here for decades suddenly find themselves called in to the Canadian Border Services Agency and served with removal orders. The failure to provide a dignified and compassionate opening to permanent residency and citizenship for Canada’s estimated 500,000 non-status residents is a significant human rights challenge that successive governments have failed to meet for decades. Instead of working with affected communities to develop such a program, the Canadian government instead views this population as a target-rich environment to score political points by meeting deportation quotas, despite the incredible pain and suffering meted out to every individual and family who receive those deportation notices.
The Trudeau government committed itself late in 2018 to increasing deportations by 35 per cent. Among the 10,000 annual deportations it seeks to execute is that of Celina Urbanowicz. Why, one might ask, does the government invest hundreds of millions of dollars in this cruel system of detention and deportation when there is no demonstrable harm whatsoever in using those resources instead to clear the path to permanent resident and citizenship status?
And for a government that prides itself on apparent respect for international law, why is it that in cases like this, Canada also appears to violate its legal commitments under UN conventions? Indeed, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees declares:
“There is universal consensus that, as the fundamental unit of society, the family is entitled to respect and protection. A right to family unity is inherent in recognizing the family as a ‘group’ unit … The right to a shared family life is also drawn from the prohibition against arbitrary interference with the family and from the special family rights accorded to children under international law.”
For Urbanowicz and countless others in her shoes, it must feel like a supreme form of gaslighting every year when the federal government issues its boilerplate “welcome” message to refugees. On June 20 — 10 days before Urbanowicz’s beloved husband was deported — Prime Minister Trudeau declared: “People flee home when they have no other choice. Those of us who are more fortunate share a responsibility to help them find refuge and build a new life. That’s why we’ll continue to come to the aid of the most vulnerable, to show openness, and to choose compassion.”
Last week, after some world leaders gathered to issue their standard “never again” refrain with respect to Second World War crimes against humanity, many returned home to European countries that actively engage in persecution against the continent’s 10 million Roma people. To forcibly remove Urbanowicz from her Ottawa family, Canada would be sending her back to a continent of intensifying persecution.
As the winter 2019 edition of Roma Rights Review points out, all Roma are subject to:
“systems of discrimination which persecute Roma in our society… by collectivising them into a homogenous group. This imagined group is called the Gypsies, and they pay for this stereotype in a thousand different ways as a result of collective punishment by those with power. Whether it is punitive forced evictions of entire Romani neighbourhoods, violent and indiscriminate police raids, deadly pogroms by murderous race mobs, or segregated education of Romani children; the persecution of the Gypsies has always been carried out through collective punishment for the crimes, imagined or real, of the few.”
Indeed, the rise and consolidation of racist and misogynist right-wing regimes in countries like Poland, Italy and Hungary are only the most obvious forms of anti-Roma racism. In the U.K., the majority Conservative government seeks to criminalize anyone who is Roma; in France, the Roma continue to face mass evictions. As Jonathan Lee of the European Roma Rights Centre points out, countless Roma were displaced during the wars that broke up the former state of Yugoslavia, with many children born without a nationality:
“Many of these families who were forced to flee were also victims of war crimes, including thousands from Kosovo where soldiers looted homes and burned settlements to the ground; acts of ethnic cleansing by Kosovar Albanians between June and August 1999. Once in the relative safety of their new host countries, the precarious situation for these Romani refugees was further exacerbated by the destruction or disappearance of official registers in many territories affected by conflict.”
Europe’s cauldron of hate
In Poland, the country to which Canada seeks to deport Urbanowicz, the neofascist movement is growing in leaps and bounds, with the conclusion that the country is becoming the centre of xenophobia in Europe. Last August, the United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination found that “the segregationist treatment of the Roma community continued,” and noted its concern about “racist hate speech against minority groups, in particular Muslims, Roma, Ukrainians, people of African and Asian descent, Jews and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, which fuels hatred and intolerance and incites violence towards such groups.”
The United Nations also pointed to structural anti-Roma discrimination and “extreme poverty and substandard living conditions faced by Roma in segregated neighbourhoods with no proper infrastructure and basic services, as well as threats of eviction.”
Just last week, The Council of Europe released a report lamenting “a clear upward trend in hate speech and hate-motivated incidents, with Muslims the most targeted group, together with the Jewish minority, Roma and, increasingly, Ukrainians. Under-reporting, distrust towards authorities, and the lack of effective investigation and prosecution of alleged hate crimes need to be urgently addressed.”
Taking these factors into account, it is difficult to square the Canadian government’s cries of “never again” to Roma persecution with the fear that they have forced Urbanowicz and her family to live with on a daily basis. While she currently has a pre-removal risk assessment under consideration, her family remains active in publicizing her case in the hope that public pressure complement the legal arguments being made on her behalf.
On February 12, Urbanowicz, her family, and their supporters will gather in Ottawa at 4 p.m. outside the Prime Minister’s Office to mark 23 years of living without status in Canada. It will be an opportunity to recall when she first landed in Canada in 1997 and her daughter Camila pointed to another child eating candy and said her first word: “food.” Even though she was two years old, Camila had never spoken in Yugoslavia. “I told her that we were now in a country where she could enjoy sweet things like candy,” her mother recalled. In that spirit, Urbanowicz will be baking Justin Trudeau a cake and hoping to share it with him, a symbolic moment in which they share a sweet dream of finally winning permanent residency in Canada.
Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.