Canada flooded with Czech Roma refugee claims
2008 saw 993% increase from year before
By Peter O'Neil
Canwest News Service
April 15, 2009
PARIS Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called Wednesday on the Czech government to crack down on unscrupulous operators believed to be behind a massive surge in the number of refugee claimants arriving at Canadian airports from that country.
The increase, believed to emanate from the minority Roma community, began in late 2007 when Canada lifted the visa requirement for Czech visitors to Canada.
There were 78 claims during the last two months of 2007, compared to none a year earlier.
In 2008, there were 853 Czech nationals seeking Canadian protection from alleged persecution in a European democracy, a staggering 993 per cent increase.
The Czech Republic has suddenly become one of Canada's top seven sources of refugees, ahead of war-and violence-stricken countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
“This is obviously a concern,” Kenney told Canwest News Service, noting the Czech Republic must comply with human-rights requirements as a member of the European Union.
“Although, like every other democracy, it has its challenges and its shortcomings, it's hard to believe that the Czech Republic is an island of persecution in Europe.”
Kenney said the Canadian government has no immediate plans to re-impose the visa requirement a move almost certain to infuriate Czech authorities and citizens.
“We would like to maintain our visa exemption with the Czech Republic. At the same time, we are obviously concerned about the numbers of false refugee claimants.”
He said he hopes Czech authorities, who are also anxious to retain visa-free status, do their part.
“If indeed there are commercial operations, I would hope the Czech authorities are able to identify those and crack down on them.”
He also said Canada and the Czech Republic are looking at ways “to prevent people from abusing our very generous refugee determination system.”
He noted that seven other eastern European and Baltic countries had their visa requirements waived in the 2007-08 period, and in no other case was there a refugee spike.
Several of those countries, including Slovakia and Hungary, have large Roma minorities.
The Roma, also known as Romany or Gypsies, face systemic discrimination and racist attacks from far-right groups, according to numerous human-rights reports. Critics, however, question whether their situation fits the United Nations definition of persecuted refugees.
Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board, an independent tribunal that assesses refugee claims, sent a fact-finding mission to the Czech Republic last month to help the board assess living conditions for Roma.
The matter represents one of the touchiest bilateral issues to be discussed when Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with Czech leaders in Prague on May 6 for the Canada-European Union summit.
The Czech Republic holds the rotating EU presidency and is therefore hosting the summit at which Canada-EU free-trade talks are expected to be launched.
Many claimants are settling in the Greater Toronto Area, according to news coverage that has included a report in France's Le Monde newspaper earlier this week.
The Czech refugee claimants have so far had a 40 per cent success rate, with 84 claims being accepted last year, compared to five that were rejected, 11 abandoned, and 95 claims withdrawn.
The huge 2008 increase made the Czech Republic the seventh-largest source of refugee claimants in a year, in which 34,800 claims were filed.
Mexico, at 8,069, was far and away the top source country, followed by Haiti (4,936), Colombia (3,132) and China (1,711).
The board defines refugees as “people who have left their home country and have a well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Canada has shown in the past it's prepared to take firm action, lifting in the mid-1990s and then re-imposing the visa requirement a year later, after a flood of more than 4,000 Czechs, again mostly Roma, showed up during the visa-free period. At the time, a documentary appeared on Czech television, touting Canada as a promised land for Roma because of alleged easy access into the country and generous social programs after arrival.
A Czech government official said in an e-mail exchange Wednesday that there is “no reason to consider them refugees.”
Foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalova noted the government has a special office responsible for minority rights. The head of that office is in “permanent contact” with Canadian officials.
There have been a number of neo-Nazi and skinhead marches into Roma ghettos, including one earlier this month, and there have been reports of unauthorized sterilizations of Roma woman as recently as last year. Roma children are routinely segregated in classrooms and often put in schools for developmentally challenged children, a fate that ensures difficulty in the job market, and shuts the door on post-secondary education.