Czech Roma Aren’t Discriminated Against : Kenney

Czech Roma aren't discriminated against: Kenney

By Peter O'Neil
Europe Correspondent
Canwest News Service
June 25, 2009

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says a newly released report supports his contention that the Roma minority in the Czech Republic, which has emerged as a major source of refugee claimants in Canada, doesn't face state-sanctioned discrimination.

“The report, as I've read it, says there are difficulties for Roma in the Czech Republic, we all know that, but the government is doing its best to improve the legal treatment of, and economic opportunities for, members of that community,” Kenney told Canwest News Service on Thursday.

“The Czech Republic is a full member of the European Union and in compliance with the European human rights law, and I think the report underscores that there is no policy of state-sponsored persecution against Czech Roma.”

Kenney, however, wouldn't repeat his assertion a day earlier that the report by Immigration and Refugee Board researchers, who visited the Czech Republic in March, could be used by IRB adjudicators to justify rejecting more asylum claims.

“If someone comes in and says the police have been beating the crap out of them, the IRB panellist can then go to their report and say, 'Well, actually, there's been no evidence of police brutality,' ” Kenney told a Toronto newspaper Wednesday.

Kenney stressed on Thursday the decision-making process at the IRB, an independent tribunal whose members are appointed by the federal government, is based on the facts of each claim.

“The IRB does not accept or reject claims on the basis of the country of origin or any general finding. They assess each claim on its merits, as it should be,” he said.

Gwendolyn Albert, speaking for the Peacework Development Fund in Prague, said Kenney's comment Wednesday was “extremely” misleading in suggesting the report could discredit an individual police brutality claim.

The IRB report found numerous instances of government and state agencies, including the police, making efforts to integrate members of that community, who were once known as Gypsies.

But the fact-finders also heard criticism of the police in their efforts to deal with discrimination and hate crimes directed against the Roma, roughly a third of whom live in crime-infested ghettos.

The report cited several academics and non-governmental organization officials who said Roma believe police have “discriminatory” or “disrespectful” attitudes and don't take their complaints seriously.

Czech Ombudsman Otakar Motejl said he received unofficial reports from non-governmental organizations and individuals complaining that Roma were “bullied” by state police.

The Canadian government has raised the possibility it will reimpose visa requirements on Czech visitors to deal with the flood of refugee applicants that began immediately after that country obtained visa-free status in late 2007.

“I will be discussing our concerns with my counterparts in Prague,” Kenney said. “Canada would like to be able to maintain visa-free travel.”

The Czech Republic, a member of the wealthy and politically progressive European Union, has emerged as one of Canada's top sources of refugees, well ahead of war-torn and ethnically divided countries such as Sri Lanka and Somalia.

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 the Czech Republic the seventh-largest source of refugees in Canada, ahead of countries such as Afghanistan and Somalia. In only the first three months of this year there were 653 Czech claims.

The IRB has so far accepted 118 applications for asylum in which the individuals had “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular political group.”

The report found that roughly 80,000 of the 200,000-250,000 Roma, in a country of 10.2 million, live in “socially excluded communities” with limited access to jobs, education or adequate housing. Some of the enclaves suffer from widespread prostitution, loansharking, and human and drug trafficking, and are “neglected” by police and other authorities, the IRB researchers were told.

While international bodies have regularly criticized treatment of Roma, the researchers cited various laws intended to protect the minority from hate crime and discrimination. Police have taken part in several community outreach programs and require members to take part in programs to deal with discrimination and hate crimes.

There are also between 130 and 140 hate-crime investigators across the country.