Canadian refugee claims by Czech minority surge after arson attack on child
Ottawa says visa-seekers pursuing economic opportunity, not escaping persecution
By Peter O'Neil and Wency Leung
Canwest News Service
May 16, 2009
Three Molotov cocktails hurled into a family home did more than terrorize its inhabitants and cause ghastly burns to a two-year-old girl, now clinging to life in a Czech Republic hospital.
The little girl, who was crouched in the corner of the room crying “mommy, mommy,” was carried from the house with burning synthetic pyjamas clinging to her skin, leaving her with severe burns to every part of her body except the area covered by her diapers.
The mid-April attack, suspected of being the handiwork of neo-Nazis targeting the country's Roma minority, has had a transatlantic ripple effect as the Canadian government struggles to deal with the wave of Roma refugee claimants pouring into Canadian airports since late 2007, when Ottawa lifted visa requirements for Czech visitors to Canada.
The arson incident triggered protests throughout this central European country, as well as in Toronto and other western cities with large Roma populations.
They denounced the systemic discrimination and growing violence against the Czech Roma minority in this country which, as a result of the peaceful 1989 “Velvet Revolution” that ended Communist rule in Prague, has been seen in the west as a beacon of liberty.
Some are using the firebombing to argue against a possible move by Ottawa to bring back the visa requirement in order to shut the door to the Roma, who are claiming persecution so they can get refugee status. The Czech and Canadian governments portray the claimants as economic opportunists making “false” claims.
“The Roma justifiably live in fear in this country,” wrote human rights advocate Gwendolyn Albert in the Prague Post, as she denounced Canada for remaining silent on the Czech Republic's human rights shortcomings.
“It doesn't matter where we go, I feel fear all day and at night when I try to go to bed,” said Anna Sivakova, 27, the mother who had to search frantically through a smoke-filled bedroom to find her daughter Natalka on April 18.
But she rejected charges that the Roma are basing their refugee claims in Canada on fear of neo-Nazi violence.
“I've heard people say that they are leaving out of fear, and also that the fear results from what happened to my family,” said the mother of three other young children, who spoke publicly for the first time this week.
“I don't think it's right to use our incident as an excuse. I think people are going to Canada for the money. I don't want to judge them but I don't believe them.”
In the Czech Republic, with a population of 10.2 million that includes a population of Roma (once known as Gypsies) in the 250,000 to 300,000 range, there were natural reactions of disgust.
President Vaclav Klaus, often viewed as a chief culprit of the discrimination because he has blocked anti-discrimination legislation already passed by Parliament, called the incident “a brutal, abominable crime.” About $12,000 in donations from sympathetic citizens was sent to the now-homeless family.
But some of the family's neighbours have openly wondered if they set the fire themselves in hopes of some sort of financial reward, according to the family. One Czech man actually endorsed the attackers, who are alleged to have shouted, “Gypsies, burn to death!” after torching the house.
“They deserved it,” said the 58-year-old Vitkov resident, named Karel, who refused to give his last name during an interview.
“If you live together with them you'd understand why I feel this way,” he said, echoing the popular sentiment that the Roma are unemployable “parasites” on the social system.
Anna Sivakova expressed shock when told of that comment.
“A two-year-old child does not deserve to be in such pain.”
Natalka's grandmother is similarly horrified by the accusations.
“Why would we have planned it? Why would we have let our baby burn?” said Vlasta Mala.
The visa burden was lifted in late 2007, roughly a decade after Canada had removed and then re-imposed that requirement in response to a flood of Roma asylum claims. Harper acknowledged here last week that Ottawa, under EU pressure to ease visa restrictions throughout central and eastern Europe, knew it was taking a risk.
So far, it appears the government miscalculated.
There were 78 refugee claims from the Czech Republic in 2007, all at the end of the year after the visa decision took effect, compared to none for all of 2006.
The total soared to 853 in 2008, making this liberal democracy the seventh-largest source of refugees in Canada — ahead of war-ravaged countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Somalia. In the first three months of this year the Czech Republic has soared to fourth place, with 653 claims. Mexico was first, at 3,648, followed by Haiti (688) and Colombia (656).
But critics of the Czech human rights record note that Canada's independent, quasi-judicial Immigration and Refugee Board accepted 118 claims since 2007 that the Czechs had “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular political group.”
Albert said the Harper government is being “naive” in accepting Czech assurances that the Roma are simply economic migrants.
She said that Roma enjoy easy access to welfare payments here, so they have little reason to risk their life savings to gamble on a Canadian refugee claim just to go back on welfare. They are also free to travel to any European Union country to look for work, though they face widespread discrimination in many countries.
“The reputation Canada has, for them, is that of a fair society in which they will not be stigmatized and where they will be able to get on their feet,” she said.
“No one will give them a second glance due to their appearance or anything else, and their children will not be exposed to violence and will be able to access education.”
Polls have consistently indicated that more than two-thirds of Czech citizens have negative views towards the Roma, a people originally from India believed to have arrived in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Prominent Czech sociologist Ivan Gabal, who has done studies for the government on how the school system has streamed normal Roma children into “special” schools for the mentally challenged, said the public — despite its deep prejudices — is prepared to support fundamental reforms.
But he said the government has fumbled its efforts to reduce discrimination.
Gabal said there are both “pull and push” factors driving the exodus — pull from families in cities like Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver who arrived in the 1990s and are urging their relatives to come, and push from the hate-fuelled racism here.
“If I was a Roma and I had my children going to these schools, and having to face these neo-Nazis on the street, I would just take them and go anywhere, Canada or somewhere else.”
The Canadian government has clearly indicated its reluctance, however, to be essentially cleaning up after a mess of Europe's making. But Amnesty International urged Ottawa to avoid steps, such as bringing back the visa requirement, to pull away the Canadian welcome mat.
Countries such as Canada and the U.S. “have the obligation to assess the asylum request of people whose lives may be at risk in their countries, and provide protection for those in need,” said David Diaz-Jogeix, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia deputy program director.