For generations, Canada has symbolized a new beginning for immigrants. But this is no longer the case for Gypsies — or Roma, as they prefer to be known — because of the way the Immigration and Refugee Board has chosen to judge their cases.
Roma face discrimination across Europe, the most deadly of which is found in eastern Europe, where they are routinely tortured and killed. Although Roma have lived in Canada for more than a century, it was only in the 1990s, when they began identifying themselves by ethnicity rather than nationality, that they started having trouble emigrating, particularly from Hungary.
Since 1997, approximately 5,000 Hungarian Roma have come to Canada seeking asylum. Only 15 per cent, about 750 Hungarian Roma have had their cases accepted, the rest have been sent back or are in the process of being deported.
Hajnalka Hamori, 24, came to Canada in 2000, deciding to flee Hungary when skinheads threatened to harm her unborn child. “When I leave, the neighbourhood said they going to kick the baby out of me,” she says. Her battle for asylum in Canada began as soon as she stepped off the plane. “The first time when I came to the airport, they were treating us like a dog,” says Hamori, referring to her reception by immigration officers. “Those were my first few hours. My God, it was very bad.”
Diplomatic relations between the Hungarian and Canadian governments may be one reason for the maltreatment of Hungarian Roma. In order for Hungary to join the European Union, it had to be seen to put an end to the ongoing persecution of Roma. In the fall of 1998, the Canadian government stepped in to help Hungary prove it was doing just that.
Two Hungarian Roma refugee cases served as a test, using the statements of a six-member panel to judge all subsequent cases. Four members of the panel were on the Hungarian government’s payroll, according to Martin Mark, a refugee sponsorship coordinator in Toronto who works with Hungarian Roma. They testified that Roma were not subject to persecution, insisting the government was creating programs to smooth their integration into Hungarian society.
As a result of the panel’s claims, Canada began accepting fewer Hungarian Roma as refugees. Before the test case, the rate of acceptance for Hungarian Roma was 95 per cent. Today, only a handful of Hungarian Roma obtain refugee status.
In addition, many Hungarian Roma who were granted entry to Canada as refugees, and who now live here without status with their Canadian-born children, are being sent back to Hungary. When they return, they are subject to worse treatment than before they escaped because they are considered traitors and are often turned down for social assistance, Mark says.
Serge Arsenault, spokesperson for the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) says the government found it necessary to use a lead case to facilitate the hearings.
“The reason it was doneâe¦ is because the IRB wanted to deal with the large influx of Hungarian Roma refugee claimants in Toronto,” says Arsenault, adding that though unusual, there are times when the IRB invents new rules. “There are some initiatives that permit a board to react to the claim. It’s not intended to be binding on other members but rather to provide guidance for similar case.”
Although legally, cases are considered individually, the information in the lead case is used as a resource in the refugee’s claim. But to many in the Hungarian Roma community who face the same persecution, arbitrary results of hearings are a painful reminder of their minority voice.
Why the lead case concept was implemented for Hungarian Roma, and no other group in Canadian history, has many involved scratching their heads.
Rocco Galati is lawyer for the lead cases that are currently before the court of appeal and will be heard this fall. Galati says the Canadian government deliberately chose the Hungarian Roma for the lead case because of their minority status.
“The reason why they chose the Roma to do the lead case is that they are the most vulnerable group without a voice,” says Galati . “The government quite consciously chose them because they are the most marginalized, non-represented, alienated racial group.”
With their fate of remaining in Canada unknown, many Roma prepare to return to Hungary.
Ronald Lee, Roma activist, historian and teacher has been working with Roma since their arrival in the late 1990s.
“What they’re basically doing is trying to make as much money as they can in Canada so when they do get sent back, they will have some kind of nest egg that they can try to start up again in Hungary,” says Lee.
A 2001 Human Rights Watch Report says, “Most of the objectives in the Hungarian government’s medium term plan for Roma rights were unmet at the end of 2000, resulting in continued discrimination in employment, housing, and education and police abuse of Hungarian Roma.”
Hungarian Roma who live in Canada without legal status live in fear they will be sent back to Hungary. “Some people do not allow their children to go to school. They stay at home. They are in hiding because their paperwork has expired or will soon expire,” says Mark.
But others, such as Hamori, refuse to remain quiet and intend to fight to remain in Canada. “You know, [the Immigration and Refugee Board] don’t believe you. They say the Roma people get enough protection in Hungary, but that’s not true. Now I’m appealing on humanitarian rights.”