The 1950s comedy ‘Some Like it Hot’ ends with the hilarious line: “Nobody’s perfect!”

That happens when millionaire Osgood Fielding III (played by the very funny Joe. E. Brown) discovers the woman to whom he has just proposed marriage is, in fact, Jack Lemmon in (barely convincing) drag!

Well Canada’s Immigration Minister is no Jack Lemmon (or Marilyn Monroe) but “nobody’s perfect” was almost the main theme of his news conference on Friday.

The Minister’s purpose was, notionally, to announce the countries Canada has decided to designate as ‘safe.’

That list includes all the countries in the European Union (EU), including Hungary, except for Romania and Bulgaria, plus the United States and Croatia, 27 in all.

Asylum seekers from those “safe” countries will get 30 to 45 rather than the “regular” 60 days to present their cases to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).They will not have the right to appeal to the newly created Refugee Appeal Division. Nor will the Federal Court be able to stay their removal while it reviews IRB decisions. 

Thousands of Roma accepted as refugees in Canada

The central focus of this new policy is Hungary, because that country is currently the biggest source of people who come to Canada seeking refuge. Almost all Hungarian asylum seekers are Roma (“Gypsies”). There are a few Jews as well.

Several thousand Central European Roma have been accepted as refugees in Canada over the past fifteen years. But, in recent years, following negative comments in 2009 and 2010 from Minister Kenney, the IRB has rejected a very high proportion of Roma claimants.

Even at that, over the past two years, the IRB still accepted the refugee claims of well over 200 Roma, mostly from Hungary. That is a small proportion of those who came seeking refuge. But it is about as many as Canada accepted, during the same period, from North Korea. 

Kenney said on Friday that the high discouragement and rejection rate among Roma asylum seekers indicates they are not genuine refugees. 

Plus, he added, the Hungarian Roma have complete mobility rights in the EU. Why do they choose Canada? 

The Minister did note that the EU countries have all barred the door to Roma seeking refuge, though he failed to accurately recognize that practice as a peculiarity of EU treaties.

The EU, to its great shame, has created a legal fiction that no citizen of one EU country can ever, ever be entitled to seek refuge in another member country. 

Roma in the EU can re-settle, yes. But that is different from seeking refuge from violence or persecution. When they move to another member country they can only stay for three months, seeking employment, and must return home if their job-hunting efforts fail.

‘I have repeatedly condemned those voices of intolerance and xenophobia,’ – Jason Kenney

More to the point, as far as Hungary goes, Kenney is well aware of how nasty things are there for Roma, as well as for Jews and other minorities. 

This reporter asked the Minister about the disturbing rise of extremism and racism in Hungary at Friday’s news conference. Here’s how that exchange went:

Question: There are consequences to honouring a country with a safe designation other than the administration of our own refugee policy. You’ve been to Hungary, you know Hungary, you’re concerned about Hungary. We’ve seen reports on CBC television this week: there’s an extremely active, very influential extreme right movement there. … Ronald Lauder head of the World Jewish Congress would certainly not designate Hungary as a safe country. He has intervened and he’s very concerned, not just about the extreme racist  movement, but about the government’s failure to react. . .Are you not worried that after making this safe country announcement, when it is reported back in Hungary, in some sense, however unintentionally, you’re going to make yourself a hero to the extreme right, racist movement in Hungary?

Kenney: Well, no, I think that’s ridiculous, because I have repeatedly condemned those voices of intolerance and xenophobia and continue to so as I did when I was in Hungary, in part expressing my solidarity with those in the Roma community who face discrimination and who are targeted by this kind of xenophobic rhetoric… That’s why I … went out to a small Roma village and met with people, went to a Roma school … met with grassroots from community leaders in Miskolz … I would point out that the designation of a country of origin in our asylum system is not, as you suggest, some kind of a — it doesn’t offer a country bragging rights. 

We continue to say that Hungary and the central European countries must do much more to integrate and protect the Roma and other vulnerable minority communities. That doesn’t change. 

At the end of the day, the designation is not that a country is 100% safe for 100% of its citizens 100% of the time.  

So I would finally point out that in the European Union, we’re talking about countries that have protections for human rights every bit as strong as Canada’s, countries like Sweden and Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and so forth. All of these countries believe that claims from Hungary are actually manifestly unfounded. So this is no more of a statement about Hungary in this respect than the statement that is already made by the 27 liberal democracies of the European Union. 

So the clear message is “nobody’s perfect”; but, if you’re in the EU, we’ll overlook your blemishes and imperfections, be they widespread discrimination or para-military racist militias.

Kenney’s barely hidden sub textual message is: ‘Step up to the plate EU, and that means you Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, France! The Roma are your problem, not Canada’s. We have our own Aboriginal people. We’re not sending them to you. Deal with the Roma problem, Europe. Canada doesn’t want them!’

It is a reasonable point, in its own way. 

And the Europeans are, in large measure, hypocrites about the Roma. 

There is a lot of money in Europe, and many European countries are, as Kenny describes them, advanced welfare states. Yet the persistent, historic European animus toward the proverbial “Gypsy” is so deeply rooted that Roma report that they feel unwelcome virtually everywhere in the EU, with the possible exception of Britain.   

That’s why Kenney’s approach makes sense for everyone, except the Roma. For that beleaguered people, the doors of what had seemed like something approaching a safe and embracing multicultural haven are closing fast.

Canada can now aspire to be what the extreme rightists in Hungary want for their country: to be “gypsy-free.”

So much for the Minister of Immigration’s glib avowals of “solidarity” with the Hungarian Roma.

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...