Why Canada should care about the Hungarian Roma
With the Hungarian national elections right around the corner, the future of Hungary’s Roma communities looks dimmer than ever. And with so many of not only Hungary’s but Slovakia’s, Czech Republic’s and Poland’s Roma communities fleeing an increasingly threatening situation, I wonder where Canadian diplomacy and Canada’s refugee policy fit into the picture.
To put this issue into context, the past year and a half have been particularly troublesome for Roma families across Central and Eastern Europe. As they continue to endure a degree of racism, violence and marginalization that is even more disgraceful given the European Union’s human rights agenda, governments and citizens appear to be doing little more than turning a blind eye to this grim reality.
In Hungary, support for the ultra-right-wing Jobbik Party continues to grow; the Party likely to win the elections, FIDESZ, is doing little to distance itself from Jobbik’s members and their public defamation of Roma, Jews and other minority groups in the country. Furthermore, Hungarians recently elected a Jobbik member to the European Parliament, who replaced Hungary’s only woman and Roma Parliamentary representative.
In 2008 alone, the National Police recorded 16 incidences of violence against the Roma, 4 of which resulted in deaths. I couldn’t find the official numbers from 2009, but media reports indicate that violence has been on the rise and is expected to increase again with warmer weather in the spring and following the elections.
It’s also alarming that after a Century plagued with hatred, war, the Holocaust, the Gulag, foreign occupation and unrelenting hardship, Hungarians (who are now members of the European Union, are “free”, and “democratic”) haven’t charged forward to ensure a peaceful and inclusive society.
So where does Canada fit into this picture?
Although some Canadian authors and journalists have covered this saga, most recently Anna Porter and Doug Saunders in The Globe and Mail, not many Canadians understand where Canada stands, and there is more than one reason for Canadians to care about this issue.
For one, Canada’s largest Roma community is understood to be in Hamilton, Ontario and is estimated at between 1,500 and 3,000 people. The vast majority of these Roma came to Canada as refugees from Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic and gained extensive support from social workers and supportive community members to find jobs, affordable housing and to learn English. As the number of refugee applicants from Czech Republic increased dramatically in 2008 and 2009, the Canadian government decided to impose Visa restrictions on Czech Republic and is considering doing the same for Hungary after its spring elections.
Secondly, Hungary is now Canada’s third-largest source of refugee claimants, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
The Canadian government has also argued that as member states of the European Union the Roma citizens of Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia are free to live in any of the other 26 EU countries, and thus, are not considered legitimate asylum claimants. Furthermore, current Canadian Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, told the National Post last June that he 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.”
Although, Minister Kenney did pay a visit to Hungary last year urging the Hungarian government to tighten its belt on addressing anti-Roma crimes, there is still a lot of room for Ottawa, Budapest and Brussels to collaboratively and diplomatically address this growing problem.
Now is the opportune time to take action. Waiting until April to act – after Hungary’s elections are over and when there will inevitably be an influx of refugee claimants that Canada will not be willing to accommodate – is not a responsible decision on Ottawa’s part. Now is the time for a serious conversation between the European, Hungarian and Canadian governments on a somber human rights issue that will not go away and that will only get harder and harder to deal with in the coming months. The bottom line is, that without external pressure, the new Hungarian government is even less likely than the last to take action against a growing number of racist crimes in the country.
As a country once admired for its strength in the arena of international diplomacy and human rights promotion, Canada indeed has an important role to play when it comes to the Roma minority.