A Roma boy in Toronto

The Trudeau government’s commitment to refugees is inconsistent and, at times, hypocritical. 

It can be justly proud of opening the doors to Syrian refugees and restoring the health care for all refugees and asylum seekers that the Harper government cut. And while they have not abrogated the safe third country agreement with the U.S., as such groups as Amnesty Canada have urged, the Liberals did not heed the Conservatives and put a stop to the flow of asylum seekers fleeing Donald Trump’s America through non-official border crossings.

However, under Trudeau, Canadian officials have continued some anti-refugee policies that were initiated by previous Liberal governments and hardened by the Harper Conservatives. One of those is the longstanding practice of preventing potential refugees from ever getting onto Canadian soil. 

In 2014 we reported, in this space, on a Harvard study that outlined how, for many years, the Canadian government has posted a well-resourced team of officials abroad whose sole task is to identify potential asylum seekers on their way to Canada and deter them.

The study estimates that these officials, oxymoronically called Liaison Officers, had intercepted 73,000 such people in the period from 2001 to 2012, although no official records are kept. The same study also points out that the government of Canada puts considerable pressure on airline and other transport companies to weed out potential migrants to Canada who might claim refugee status when they get here.

The companies all too enthusiastically comply. According to an article published on May 6 in the Toronto Star, airlines that operate flights from European cities to Canada have, of late, been systematically kicking off Roma (Gypsy) travellers from Hungary, Slovakia and other eastern European countries.  

The fact that these travellers have valid travel documents and paid-up tickets — and that Canada does not require visas for travellers from their countries of origin — does not protect them. Airlines have the right to deny access to anyone without necessarily providing any reason.

Collaboration between the Canadian government and the airlines

Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officials admit that they provide training and advice to airlines on detecting, in their words, “improperly documented” travellers, but argue that the decision to bar anyone is up to the airlines, not the government.

The backdrop to all this is that Canada’s Immigration and Refugees Board (IRB) continues to accept the refugee claims of a large proportion of Roma asylum seekers from such countries as Hungary, despite the efforts of successive Liberal and Conservative governments to prevent that from happening.

The Harper government established a list of so-called safe designated countries of origin in large measure to deter Roma refugees. The Conservatives argued that it was illogical for Canada to be accepting a significant number of refugees from countries, such as Hungary and Slovakia, that they characterized as liberal and democratic.

There are rumours that the Trudeau government wants to do away with the safe country designation and treat all asylum seekers equally, but that has not happened yet. Even under the current system, however, which gives asylum seekers from such designated countries an unrealistically short time to establish their claims, and no right of appeal, three-quarters of the asylum seekers from Slovakia and two-thirds of those from Hungary gained acceptance to Canada last year.

Now, the Liberal government might be worried about what will happen when it fully drops the entry requirements on the last two European Union countries on which Canada still imposes visas: Bulgaria and Romania. Both have very large, impoverished Roma populations that continue to suffer systemic economic and social discrimination, and sporadic acts of violence from a burgeoning community of extreme-right thugs. The government’s fear of a massive influx of Romanian and Bulgarian Roma could explain why the CBSA might be quietly encouraging airlines to increase their vigilance at this time.

The Liberals have historically been uncomfortable with the fact of European Roma coming to Canada as refugees, a phenomenon that started not long after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Liberal commitment to human rights, including the rights of refugees, is stronger than that of the Conservatives, especially the Harper Conservatives. But the Liberals are also economic globalists, deeply committed to increased integration among all of the planet’s free market economies. The Trudeau government considers the successful signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the EU to be a major achievement.

In that light, it is understandable that Canada does not want to do anything to embarrass the EU, or any of its members. Canada’s acceptance of large numbers of refugees from EU countries, almost all of whom are members of the same long-oppressed minority community, is a way of telling the EU it is not living up to its own claims to be a champion of human rights. That is a message the Trudeau government would rather not send. And if the Roma must be the victims of Canada’s single-minded pursuit of liberalized trade, so be it.

Image: Karl Nerenberg.

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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...