Czech asylum bids watched in Ottawa
Spike in applications, mostly by Roma, since visa requirement ended
The Toronto Star
Mar 19, 2008 04:30 AM
Canada has seen a rising number of Roma asylum seekers since lifting its visa requirement for Czech Republic visitors five months ago and more are expected now that four other eastern European countries have been given the same exemption.
This month, Canada extended visa exemptions to Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Lithuania. All but the latter are populated by ethnic Roma, known colloquially as gypsies, who continue to face discrimination and social isolation in eastern Europe.
The European Union has been pressuring Canada to open its border to all 27 member states, eliminating barriers that especially involve eastern Europe.
Immigration Minister Diane Finley dropped the visa requirement for the Czech Republic as of Nov. 1.
Since then, claims for asylum by Czech visitors, in most cases Roma, shot up to 83 by the end of December, from zero the previous year. This past January, 45 more claims were entered.
There are concerns this could lead to a repeat of the 1996 influx of an estimated 4,000 Czech Roma into Canada after travel restrictions were eliminated. The majority were granted refugee status, but not before Canada reinstated a visa requirement.
This time, the Canadian government has made it known unofficially that should the number of Czech refugee claimants leap to 580 this year (or 2 per cent of all such claims Canada expects to process), it will restore the visa requirement.
At the Toronto Roma Community Centre on Springhurst Ave., executive director Paul St. Clair said he has been fielding calls from eastern Europeans wanting to learn more about coming to Canada.”If we open the border, we open the border. We shouldn't limit how many refugees can apply from a country,” said St. Clair, whose centre has files on about 40 Roma families seeking asylum since November.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said the status quo between the two countries is based only on diplomatic assurances. “There is no 2 per cent (sanction) but it is important to remember that visa requirements are regularly reviewed,” said spokesperson Danielle Norris.
Eliminating visas is a win-win for both countries in terms of trade and tourism, Czech Republic ambassador Pavel Vosalik told the Star, adding that using the 2 per cent yardstick to determine entry conditions for Czechs isn't fair.
He questioned the legitimacy of asylum applications, saying Czech natives are now free to travel in Europe if they decide their homeland lacks adequate security.
Canada now requires visas of only two EU members, Romania and Bulgaria. Norris said the eventual goal is to end those barriers as well.