Kenney says EU countries do not persecute the Roma.

It’s called Bill C-31 and the headlines are saying that it is designed to stop “bogus” refugee claimants and streamline Canada’s refugee system.

It’s all about being fair and being quick, the government says. We must dispense with the “phony” refugees quickly so that the real ones don’t have to wait so long, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, tells Canadians.

The fact is, though, that this bill is all about one group of people, the Roma (or “Gypsy”) minority in Europe, and — for now — one country, Hungary.

Roma have been coming to Canada from Hungary, in the thousands, over the past few years, claiming refugee status. They do not try to go to Germany or other EU countries because they know they will not be welcome there.

The Hungarian Roma “discovered” Canada after visa restrictions on Hungarians were lifted a number of years ago and have found this country’s multicultural environment welcoming, compared to “ethno-nationalist” central Europe.

A persecuted people for many centuries

The estimated 12 million European Roma have been victims of historic persecution and discrimination in Europe that goes back centuries. Even Jason Kenny recognizes this.

“Obviously, many Roma in Central Europe face difficulty,” he told Wednesday’s press conference, “[and] there’s a long sad history that we’re all familiar with.”

But, he added, he believes things are now getting better.

“They have a multi-billion dollar action plan for the integration of the Roma, where the EU is funding an enormous number of educational and social development and economic development projects in Hungary and other Central European countries,” he said. “There’s no doubt, as I say, that there are acts of discrimination in civil society and that some people face great difficulty. But it’s also clear that the European Union states do not persecute people on the basis of their ethnicity.”

The coup-de-grace, for Kenney, is that most Hungarian refugee claimants, in recent years, have either been rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) or have withdrawn their claims.

After Kenney made statements the IRB started turning down the Roma

That may be true, but people in the Roma community will tell you there is a sort of “chicken-and-egg” problem.

Prior to mid-2010, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which is composed of citizens named by the government, tended to rule favourably on Roma refugee cases.

Then, in the spring of 2010, Kenney publicly stated that his government did not believe that people coming from “democratic, EU countries,” including Hungary, could, as a rule, be considered legitimate refugees. And, he added, the government was very concerned about the high number of people coming from Europe claiming refugee status in Canada.

The Minister’s statement seemed to put a chill on the IRB, which turned sharply, and has since then rejected almost all Roma claims.

The Roma community view is that if Roma from Hungary sometimes give up their claims, the reason could be that they are discouraged and a little bit fearful, given the IRB’s high rejection rate since 2010.

Virulent discrimination and fear of violence: Hungarian expert

And, despite Kenney’s confidence that the Europeans have things well in hand, as far as the Roma are concerned there is ample evidence to the contrary, especially in Hungary.

Vera Messing is a sociologist and research associate at the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. About a decade ago, the Canadian government consulted Dr. Messing about the situation of the Hungarian Roma, and she gave the Hungarian government of that time a passing grade.

There were enormous historic injustices to overcome, she told the Canadian authorities, but her government was making a genuine effort, especially in the fields of education and employment.

Today, Messing argues, the situation for Roma in her country is much bleaker.

“There has been a fundamental change since the turn of 2002,” Messing now says. “The exclusion and the segregation of Roma people in the residential environment, in employment and in education has significantly increased.”

In addition the respected Hungarian researcher adds: “Discrimination, open discrimination, has also significantly increased. We have several researches that prove that discrimination primarily in the labour market, but also in education is significant.”

Political power of the extreme right in Hungary

What makes things even worse, Messing tells us, is the rise of the extreme right Jobbik political party in Hungary.

Jobbik was a small fringe group only a few years ago, but now sits in third place in Hungary’s parliament and seems to be growing in popularity, especially in rural Hungary where the Roma minority and “white” Hungarian majority often live in close proximity.

The  Jobbik party, Messing told a Canadian documentary film crew last spring, “is an extreme, openly anti-Roma party, which openly expresses anti-Roma hatred.”

And if that weren’t enough, Messing reports that “the Roma experience more and more physical threats by extreme right-wing people […] 10 years ago, there were anti-Roma feelings but it was not politically correct to express and Roma people were not physically threatened. Now, that’s unfortunately the case. So there was a series of killings motivated by racial hatred. Several people were killed in several attacks […] and even today anti-Roma militia is allowed to march and threaten people in Roma villages. The police do not intervene and Roma people feel fear!”

Federal Court rules in favour of Roma

Some Canadian officials who have studied the Hungarian Roma situation concur with Vera Messing, notwithstanding the Minister of Immigration’s somewhat more sanguine view.

In June of 2010, Federal Court Justice Douglas Campbell, in a ruling on a Roma family’s removal, wrote of the “horrific suffering that the applicants would probably suffer should they be required to return to Hungary.”

Justice Campbell quoted, at length, from the “Tribunal record of in-country conditions in Hungary” (of which a primary source is the United States State Department), which stated that:

“Extremists increasingly targeted Roma and other dark-skinned persons. A series of violent attacks led to four deaths and multiple injuries. Discrimination against Roma in education, housing, employment, and access to social services continued…”

Justice Campbell then set aside the removal order for the Hungarian Roma family.

The new legislation introduced by Minister Kenney would now make such an appeal to the Federal Court virtually impossible.

It would also make it impossible for Roma — or anyone coming from a Minister-designated “safe” country — to appeal to the new entity the government intends to create, a Refugee Appeal Division (RAD). The RAD will be empowered to review IRB decisions.

Humanitarian and compassionate avenue closed for Roma

In the current system, refugee claimants who get turned down by the IRB can still appeal to the federal Immigration Department for the right to stay in Canada, on what are called “humanitarian and compassionate” grounds. Those grounds are somewhat broader than the Geneva Convention criteria that govern IRB decisions.

In some cases, however, an appeal on humanitarian and compassionate grounds has allowed Immigration Department officials to “correct” the IRB’s Convention-based decisions.

In one such case involving a Hungarian Roma child who had been turned down by the IRB, the Immigration Department’s Pre-Removal Risk Assessment Officer quoted extensively from Amnesty International and international media accounts of the precarious and worsening human rights situation of the Hungarian Roma.

The officer then concluded:

“The applicant’s fear of persecution is based upon a ground that is enumerated in the Convention refugee definition, specifically race, in that the applicant is Roma […] based on documentary evidence, I am satisfied that the applicant’s fear of persecution is well-founded.”

The officer then referred to the Convention rule that people could be refugees even if the persecution they suffer is not at the hands of the state, if the state does not, or cannot, afford them protection.

He said that he was “not satisfied that the applicant would receive adequate state protection in Hungary if he were to return to that country.”

A legislative bait and switch?

Kenney’s new bill eliminates the possibility for Roma who do not get past the foreshortened IRB process to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Roma and other refugee claimants from so-called “safe” countries would get one shot, a 45-day process before the IRB. If they were rejected that would be curtains for them. They would be quickly sent back.

All of this is contrary to the refugee bill that the last Parliament passed in 2010, with all-party agreement.

That bill provided for speeded-up hearings before the IRB for refugee-claimants from so-called “safe” designated countries, but also provided for a rigorous process for determining which countries should be so designated and gave refugee-claimants from those countries full access to the appeal process.

The NDP’s Immigration critic, Don Davies, described Kenney’s unilateral legislative ambush on refugee claimants as a “step backwards.”

Parliamentarians reached a compromise on the 2010 refugee legislation “in good faith,” Davies said. It was not a partisan issue, Davies and other opposition politicians argue, but an effort to design a process that was both quick and fair.

Davies quoted Kenney as saying, at the time the opposition-amended legislation passed in 2010, that it was “a stronger piece of legislation” than the government’s original bill, and would provide for a refugee process that was both “faster and fairer.”

This new legislation returns, in essence, to the Conservatives’ original package presented to parliament during the minority period.

The fundamental idea of the rule of law

The new bill, Davies argues, “gives too much power to the Minister” (who has the virtual untrammelled power to decide which countries make the “safe designated countries” list) and, in removing the right to appeal for some claimants, it “is contrary to the fundamental idea of the rule of law.”

The new bill will likely pass, of course. We have a majority government now.

The previous law, passed in the last Parliament, was to come into effect in June of this year. Kenney now admits that this new law will not be enacted and put into practice by then.

With a nod to his officials, Kenney said, “I hope it can be put into effect by the fall of 2012.”

A fall 2012 deadline means the bill will have to move through all stages, including debate in the Commons and Senate and consideration by Commons and Senate committees, in very short order indeed.

Does anyone hear the time allocation bell ringing?

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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...