commentary

Commentary | A crisis across borders

Anti-Roma sentiment greets Roma refugees as they flee to Canada

TW: Racism, xenophobia

In October 2004, in her home country of Hungary, Katalin Lakatos’s eldest son committed suicide after a series of racist encounters with local police that had left him fearing for not only his own safety, but also that of the people around him. Soon after her son’s death, and after filing a complaint against the police, Lakatos herself became subject to harassment by the authorities. Then, in 2011, racially motivated medical neglect nearly killed Lakatos’s second son, according to migrant justice group Solidarity Across Borders (SAB). It was this second incident, and the constant threat of death that hung over her family, that led Lakatos and her family to move to Canada.

The move, however, did not ease the family’s burden. According to SAB, the Lakatos family continued to face discrimination over the next five years, in part as a result of immigration policies specifically meant to keep Roma immigrants out of Canada. They were  subject to a lengthy and painful bureaucratic process that saw Katalin Lakatos’s husband and younger son deported, and Lakatos and her teenage daughter detained in the Laval Immigration Detention Centre. All the while, she only hoped that nothing would force her and her daughter to move back to the country that had terrorized them for so long, and that her husband and son could return to Canada.

The Lakatos family’s story is not unique – they, as members of the Roma community, have faced these levels of discrimination their entire lives. The Roma (or Romani) are an ethnic group that are believed to have emigrated from northern India to the Middle East and Europe between the 6th century and the 12th century, and are currently spread out across the world, with the highest populations present across Eastern Europe, the United States, Brazil, and Turkey. To English speakers, the group is pejoratively referred to as “g*psies.”  No major written records are considered to account for the origins of Roma people, and this has, over the course of several centuries, resulted in their global displacement. Roma people have been systematically barred from gaining legal status and a sense of safety or security in many countries across Europe, and are often forcibly uprooted from their homes by governments steeped in anti-Roma prejudice.

Amnesty International has, over the past decade, released several damning articles and a major report on the state of Roma rights in Europe, detailing individual and systemic discrimination that Roma people face beginning in childhood. There have been reports of segregation and discrimination in the education system across Eastern Europe, including discriminatory curricula that ingrains in young children negative stereotypes about Roma people, and the forced placement of Roma children into programs for low-performing students. Roma people are forcibly evicted from their homes and cities because they are Roma, a notable example being the 2014 change in social housing policy in Miskolc, Hungary, serving to ethnically cleanse the city of its Roma population; and occurrences of anti-Roma violence perpetrated by authorities include police harassment and forcible seizure of property in refugee camps in France, and disproportionate imprisonment and incarceration rates in Greece.

There has been a devastating lack of attention paid to the issues faced by the Roma community by governments across Europe: despite numerous attempts by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and SAB to intervene in the crisis, the hatred directed at the Roma community in Europe continues to run rampant. This far-reaching prejudice is centuries long, but was most visible to the world in World War I and World War II, when Nazi and Communist governments were known to actively conduct the genocide of Roma people, while Canada, the U.S., and Western Europe did little to nothing to aid in the refuge or rehabilitation of the Roma people. Anti-Roma sentiment has been unrelenting and has gone unaddressed, and the community currently faces no prospect of peace.

Canada is touted as a safe haven where refugees face no barriers, and as a shelter where ideals of peace can be actualized. In reality, Canada is no sanctuary for Roma refugees fleeing Europe. Over the course of the last decade, various pro-immigration interest groups across Canada have noted a significant anti-Roma sentiment taking hold of Canadian foreign policy and immigration law.

With the presence of anti-Roma immigration policies, Canada is just as complicit as many other governments across the world in allowing prejudice against Roma people to continue. SAB has also condemned the Canadian government for silently condoning the anti-Roma sentiments perpetrated by neo-Nazi groups across North America and Europe, and for standing idly by while an entire people continues to be terrorised.  

Reports of discrimination and racial profiling by Canadian border security against Roma travellers have increased in number since 2011, and Roma people entering Canada have been subject to humiliating displays of public scrutiny by airport security upon arrival to the country.

Jason Kenney, Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism between 2008 and 2013, is known for implementing a set of changes to immigration law that prioritized trade and the benefit of the private sector over a need-based model that put humanitarian aid first. Kenney’s policy changes allowed entry mostly to “high-skilled” young immigrants who would primarily boost the Canadian economy and be of use to the country. These immigrants were well educated and already fluent in either English or French – they were part of an elite class of foreign workers that the Harper government deemed “worthy” of letting into the country.

Under Kenney, 2012 saw the establishment of Bill C-31 by the Canadian government. This omnibus bill gave the Immigration Minister unchecked power to make the detainment, imprisonment, and deportation of refugees easy and unchecked and took away rights from claimants.The Justice for Refugees and Immigrants Coalition released a joint statement that said Bill-31 was “unconstitutional, undermines our humanitarian traditions, and violates our international obligations.” Kenney said the bill was supposed to protect Canada from “bogus refugees” set out to “abuse our generosity.”

At the same time, the Harper government was changing restrictions on visa permits, including those for members of the European Union (EU). Among a number of economic reasons, this was also done to address the high number of refugee applications coming out of Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania – the European countries with the highest populations of Roma people. These countries became the only EU countries to require visas for travel to Canada, although restrictions on Hungarian citizens have since been amended.

According to Global News, nearly 4,000 refugee applicants awaiting status confirmation in Canada were paid to go back to their countries of origin between 2012 and 2014. Of that number, 61 per cent were citizens of Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and most of them were Roma. Global News additionally reports that there were doubts raised by lawyers as to whether the money was voluntarily accepted by many of the refugee applicants who travelled back to their home countries, and advocates and immigration attorneys stated that fear of deportation and incarceration led many to accept the funds out of fear.

The remnants of Conservative anti-Roma sentiment have yet to be eliminated from the new Liberal government’s policies. While there have been significant and positive changes to immigration and refugee laws under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on a systemic level the Roma community faces similar levels of neglect due to no changes being made to anti-Roma policy. There seems to be no end to the prejudice that Roma people experience, even after they have travelled over land and sea.

The Lakatos family has received some measure of peace, as of August 2016. Over the summer, Gilda and Katalin Lakatos faced the fear of imminent deportation. After their initial applications were denied, their appeals went through a bureaucratic process that lasted nearly a year, during which time the Minister of Immigration refused to comment on the state of the appeals process. It was only as of last month that the Lakatos family has received initial approval for the permanent residency application. Despite this turn for the better, they are still faced with thousands of dollars in bureaucratic and legal fees, along with a $3,000 fee to allow for the return of father and son to Canada.

For a family – and moreover, a people – to have to go through so much in their home country only to face the same prejudice and scrutiny in Canada, paired with an arduous and painful bureaucratic process, is unacceptable. Moreover, it is hypocritical to hail Canada as a shelter for refugees when a community so heavily marginalized throughout the rest of the world is also shunned by the Canadian government. It is appalling that a country that claims to stand for the principles of human rights, freedom, and safety for all, would stand by and ignore an entire people who ask only for a small measure of the humanity they have until now been denied.