Canada warns Czechs may again need visas
By Peter O'Neil, Europe Correspondent
Canwest News Service
May 6, 2009 2:02 PM
PRAGUE Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned the Czech Republic here Wednesday that Canada will be forced to take measures to stem the flow of Czech Roma refugee claimants entering Canada.
Harper said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney plans a visit to the Czech Republic soon to investigate the matter.
The prime minister hinted that visa requirements for Czech visitors to Canada, lifted in late 2007, could be brought back.
The visa requirement was lifted in late 2007, resulting in 78 claims during the last two months of that year compared to none a year earlier.
In 2008 there were 853 Czech nationals seeking Canadian protection from alleged persecution, making the country the seventh-largest source of asylum claimants, ahead of war-ravaged countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
“It is a concern, and unless there is improvement the government of Canada will have to take some actions,” Harper said here Wednesday.
“It's not necessarily the fault of the Czech Republic, but it is a reality that we do have to deal with.”
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who leaves office later this week, dismissed claims that the Roma are fleeing persecution even though numerous human rights organizations have said the minority once known as Gypsies are subjected to widespread discrimination and far-right violence.
Instead, he portrayed them as economic migrants trying to take advantage of Canada's “soft” refugee determination system.
“Canada has a . . . very soft asylum procedure,” he said.
“And it's very easy to get asylum in Canada, and for that reason it is being targeted by individuals who seek economic (gain) rather than any other asylum.”
He said the government should “obviously” investigate the problem and “look for other opportunities for those individuals.”
He acknowledged that the flood of refugees violates the terms of the 2007 agreement with Canada to lift visa requirements.
Canada's independent Immigration and Refugee Board accepted 84 refugee claims from the Czech Republic last year, compared to five that were rejected, 11 abandoned and 95 that were withdrawn.
“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 told Canwest News Service last month in a statement widely circulated in the Czech media.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have reported that Czech Roma, in addition to being subjected to periodic neo-Nazi violence, face systemic discrimination in housing, education, health care and employment.
A coalition of rights groups called earlier this week on Harper to encourage the Czech government to take various measures to end discrimination, including the passing of a long-delayed anti-discrimination law that is required by the European Union.