Comments on Roma refugees are ill-informed, misdirected and unfortunately have precedence
The possibility that Canada might reinstate visas for Czech citizens resurfaced in the Czech media recently in connection with the high numbers of Czech Roma refugees applying for asylum there. What many readers might not realize is that, as far as the Roma are concerned, the Canadian government already has quite a history of trying to improperly influence who applies for asylum.
On April 22, the Canadian citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism minister was quoted as having called on the Czech government to “intervene against agencies that may be behind the new wave of Czech asylum seekers, mostly Romanies, arriving in Canada.” The Canadian Embassy was also quoted as having urged the Czech government to take action against what it called “unscrupulous mediators” who may be assisting persons in going to Canada. Elsewhere, the minister was quoted as referring to his concern about “false” refugee claimants. Last year, claims in the Czech press were made that those applying for asylum were merely “economic” migrants, not persons fleeing potential harm. With regard to the racist violence being perpetrated against the Roma and their systemic discrimination in Czech society, Canadian officials remain silent.
The recent arson attack on a Roma family in Vítkov is just one of many that have occurred over the past 15 years. However, unlike the other attacks that the world rarely hears about, this one resulted in a 2-year-old girl being hospitalized with third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body, which made the incident newsworthy. The Roma justifiably live in fear in this country, and those of them who remain here to fight for equality in this society are very brave. The recent rise in Czech Roma asylum claims in Canada is primarily due to the rise in Czech public officials, from mayors to ministers, taking a page from the tactics of fringe neo-Nazi political parties and specifically targeting the issue of the proportionally large number of Roma citizens on welfare in this country as part of their populist political agendas.
The past three years have seen the mass eviction of Roma tenants from municipally owned housing in Bohumín, Vsetín and other towns under conditions that violated their rights. The Vsetín evictions led to the rise of Christian Democratic leader Jiří Čunek, whose only political agenda is and has been to make periodic anti-Roma jibes. There was the scandal involving anti-Roma statements by Senator Liana Janáčková during her time as a municipal-level authority – police wanted to charge her with the crime of inciting racial hatred, but her fellow senators refused to deprive her of immunity from prosecution. There was the town of Chomutov’s “Operation Lifesaver” program, in which collections agents illegally accosted indebted residents coming to the town hall for their welfare payments, collecting their monies in the presence of media and police and making sure their own hefty fees were paid out of the take, as well. There has been a sharp rise in public neo-Nazi demonstrations around the country targeting Roma-inhabited areas of towns, many of which have narrowly avoided turning into outright pogroms, including the riot in Litvínov Nov. 17, 2008, that cost taxpayers 40 million Kč and the recent demonstration in Ústí nad Labem at which German neo-Nazis called for the return of the Reich. Lastly, there have been many incidents of racially motivated violence perpetrated by and on individuals documented by human rights organizations and the press.
The Czech Republic is the only EU member state that has not yet adopted a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, as it pledged to do upon accession in 2004. It has failed to end systemic discrimination against Roma children in the schools, now required as a result of a 2007 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. Despite a 2005 report by the Czech ombudsman recommending that it do so, the Czech government has yet to acknowledge and remedy the coercive sterilization of hundreds of Roma women during the period since at least the late 1960s. It has not even managed to secure dignified remembrance for the Roma victims of the Holocaust, as the pig farm on the former Roma concentration camp site at Lety shows. All of these facts are seals on the fate of the Roma in the Czech Republic as victims of what EU jargon now calls “social exclusion.”
In Canada, more than 100 of the recent Roma refugees from the Czech Republic have been recognized by the Immigration and Refugee Board as meeting the criteria for asylum there, i.e., a “well-founded” fear of persecution. It is not the business of the government of Canada (or any other) to prevent refugees from seeking asylum, but that is exactly what the Canadian government seems to be attempting in the Czech media by raising the specter of visas, talking of refugee “fraud” and staying silent on the ongoing racist violence. This is not the first time Canadian authorities have attempted to influence the outcome of refugee proceedings with respect to the Roma; in 2006, the Canadian Federal Court of Appeals deemed illegal the actions of the Canadian government in attempting to influence asylum proceedings in the development of a so-called “lead case” concerning Roma asylum seekers from Hungary. While that particular case concerned internal procedures, not statements through the media, it clearly showed the Canadian authorities’ unwarranted interference was aimed at preventing further Roma asylum seekers from coming to the country.
Moreover, this past July, Czech diplomat Karel Hejč went public with the information that Canadian authorities had faxed the names and birthdates of asylum seekers from the Czech Republic to the Czech Embassy in Canada – a move that surprised him, since, if it were the practice for all asylum seekers, it could potentially expose them or their remaining family members to harm. He said he had never requested such information, had no use for it and had asked the authorities to stop providing it. Canadian authorities claimed they were providing the information at the asylum seekers’ request. According to the Canadian Press Agency, the Czech Embassy was not the only one to report having received such information.
Shortly before Canada lifted its visa requirement for the Czech Republic, I was asked to take part in a consultation on the issue at the Canadian Embassy with other civil society members. We were asked to predict what might happen once the visas were lifted. Given that the Czech Republic is now an EU member state, which it was not during the Roma “exodus” of 1996-97, most of us agreed that emigration within the EU might prove a more viable option for Roma from the Czech Republic, whatever their motivation for leaving the country. I also urged Canadian authorities not to lift the visas, since it was one of the last international community “carrots” around that might be used to influence the Czech government’s approach toward the Roma community. I recommended they encourage the Czech government to collect anonymous data disaggregated by ethnicity in a number of areas (health, education, housing, etc.) that could be used to form a clear picture of the situation in the country based on reliable longitudinal data. My suggestions were received politely, but fell on deaf ears.
If it is the case that people are unethically enriching themselves on the Canadian asylum application process, whether on this or that side of the Atlantic, the facts should be marshaled and the perpetrators prosecuted if possible. It is not helpful, however, for Canadian officials to cast aspersions in the Czech media on Roma asylum seekers as “fraudulent” during a time when neo-Nazi rhetoric about “Gypsy parasites” is being publicly chanted somewhere in this country practically every weekend and is being taken up by mainstream politicians to justify their own illegal maneuvers, some of which constitute human rights violations. Canada is not living up to its reputation for tact and finesse in the realm of diplomacy here; the timing of Canadian authorities’ remarks are adding fuel to a fire that is all too real.
– The author is the director of the Women’s Initiatives Network at the Peacework Development Fund.