Ottawa Skeptical Of Roma Persecution As Flood Of Refugee Claimants Grows

Ottawa skeptical of Roma persecution, as flood of refugee claimants grows

By Giuseppe Valiante
National Post
Posted: June 02, 2009, 6:12 PM by Rob Roberts

The flood of Roma refugee claimants into Canada is hastening with 653 applications since January from the Czech Republic alone, but federal immigration officials are rejecting claims that severe ethnic violence is leading the exodus.

Were monitoring very closely the rising number of asylum claimants from the Czech republic … No one is saying that the Czech Republic is a perfect country. That said, we find it hard to believe that [it] is an island of persecution in Europe, said Alykhan Velshi, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

The approval rate for asylum claims from the Czech Republic is below average, said Mr. Velshi.

Mr. Velshi wouldnt say what measures the Harper government might take, because speculation on imposing or lifting visas … create a risk of a run at the borders.

But it seems like that might already be happening.

Since the beginning of 2008, 1,506 people from the Czech Republic have applied to Canada as refugees, a dramatic increase when contrasted to 2007, with 78 applications. Canada lifted visa requirements Oct. 31, 2007. Most Roma who enter Canada move to southern Ontario, where an estimated 8,000 live.

Last Tuesday, 95 Roma from the Czech Republic landed at Pearson International Airport and stayed for several days waiting to speak with Immigration Department officials. They have apparently moved on to Hamilton.

Paul St. Clair, executive director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, said that number will only increase unless something is done to end the violence against the Roma populations in Eastern Europe, because Canada is seen as an easily accessible haven.

People on the street swear at the Roma, harass them, beat them up, throw Molotov cocktails in their homes … and one of the slogans [skinheads] use is get out of Czech Republic, go to Canada! said Mr. St. Clair (pictured above).

Mr. St. Clair said now that countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary have been accepted into the European Union, the eyes of Brussells bureaucrats are no longer watching as closely how their minorities are treated.

Canadas immigration policy makes big news in eastern Europe, Mr. St. Clair said.

Canada sneezes and its in the Czech press. Same in Hungary … Any change in the Canadian position is amplified 10-fold, said Mr. St. Clair.

Jeffrey Kopstein, director of the Centre for European Studies at the University of Toronto, said former communist countries havent gone through their era of civil rights, which makes life difficult for Roma.

Mr. Kopstein acknowledged that countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary are solid democracies with broad rights, free press, but he likened the attitude of Eastern Europeans to the Roma with the way 1950s white Americans viewed black people.

Thats to say you have a broad range of opinion, ranging from quite liberal to deeply discriminatory, he said.

Mr. Kopstein said the economies of these countries are weak, and unemployment is rising. Everyone always worries about looking for scapegoats, he said.

Said Mr. Kopstein: One has to ask oneself, is the added cost of these refugee claims so onerous that wed want to slow down the movement of people, where [this movement] is really positive and good?