Roma Influx Putting Strain On Services

Roma influx putting strain on services
Shelters Crowded; Government probing situation in Czech Republic

Giuseppe Valiante
National Post
Published: Saturday, June 06, 2009

The flood of Roma refugee claimants at Pearson International is swamping southern Ontario social agencies, who say their shelters are reaching capacity and they don't have enough resources to handle the influx.

Employees of emergency shelters will meet next week with provincial and federal officials to see what additional resources are needed to assist the hundreds of asylum claim-ants that have entered Canada after visa duties were lifted for Czech citizens at the end of 2007.

“I would certainly be concerned that our system is close to capacity and if we continue to see more refugee claimants coming from the Czech Republic or from anywhere in fact, we would be challenged to meet the needs,” said Sue Ritchie, manager of the community programs unit at the Region of Peel, which runs emergency shelters.

Since January, 2008, almost 2,000 Czech citizens have entered Canada and applied for asylum status — 404 in April alone. This is a dramatic increase compared with 78 cases referred to the refugee board in 2007 and zero in 2006. Most stay in southern Ontario.

Ms. Ritchie said she has had to turn away new refugees, including the 95 Roma who arrived at Pearson International Airport last week. Many of them have since moved on to Hamilton, which has Canada's largest Roma community, estimated at between 1,500 and 3,000.

The Region of Peel has sheltered 21 Roma families — 92 people — since April. They provide food, early childcare, and services for families to search for housing and employment.

Ms. Ritchie said that if southern Ontario shelters run out of space, the province will rent private hotel rooms. She said shelters in downtown Toronto, Hamilton and the Peel area aren't at that point, “but very close.”

Researchers from Citizen and Immigration Canada returned last week after being sent on a fact-finding trip to the Czech Republic to determine the reasons for the fleeing Roma minority, according to an immigration official.

A report is expected by the research team, but a spokesperson for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Stephane Malepart, wouldn't provide a date for the release nor speculate on what's in it.

Ms. Ritchie said community workers will ask government officials during their meeting what additional support is available and “if there are discussions under way for changing the process for individuals from the Czech Republic [to immigrate to Canada].” Kay Blair, executive director of the community microskills development centre, who met with a Roma delegation in the Czech Republic, said their experiences were “grounded in sub-human treatment.”

“Wherever the Roma people are, the preference would be to achieve their extinction. It's strong terminology…. I haven't seen anywhere that we have gone where there is any form of acceptance of the Roma people,” Ms. Blair said.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told the National Post earlier this week that Mr. Kenney is “monitoring very closely the rising number of asylum claimants from the Czech Republic [but] we find it hard to believe that [it] is an island of persecution.”