OTTAWA - An advocate for Roma refugee claimants says "Gypsy fiction" is fanning the same kind of discrimination in Canada that her ancestors have faced for centuries in Europe.
Gina Csany-Robah, the executive director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto — the only one of its kind in Canada — gave an impassioned critique of proposed Conservative changes to the refugee system.
"It is very important to be able to depict what is the Gypsy fiction from the Roma reality," Csany-Robah told a parliamentary committee while denouncing Conservative efforts to address "bogus" refugee claims.
"The problem is that the fiction here influences peoples' thought process, even at schools ... and when they hear the discourse that's often in our media, it just compiles the problem."
She said the nomadic, crime-riddled, crystal-ball gazing Gypsies of lore are a fiction created by societies that have marginalized the Roma since the 13th century — including the death of some two million Roma in the Holocaust.
Csany-Robah, a Canadian-born Roma who says she is the first Roma ever to testify before a parliamentary committee, said "Apartheid-like conditions" continue in some parts of Europe.
Bill C-31, currently being studied by a parliamentary committee, will speed up refugee processing by giving the immigration minister the power to designate any country as safe.
Rejected refugee claimants from designated safe countries could be quickly deported with no avenue of appeal within the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has singled out escalating refugee claims from Hungary — the vast majority of which are rejected or simply abandoned — as a symptom of a system in need of an overhaul.
Some 4,423 Hungarians made refugee claims in Canada last year, up from 2,296 the previous year. It's believed the vast majority are Roma, and Kenney took the extraordinary step of going to Hungary and having his department distribute flyers telling people they were not eligible for refugee status.
"We need a fix," Conservative MP Rick Dystra, Kenney's parliamentary secretary, told the committee Thursday. "It's clear there is an opportunity for people to take advantage here."
However Maureen Silcoff, a lawyer for the Roma Community Centre of Toronto, accused Kenney of pre-judging the Roma cases.
"People who work with Roma refugees are at a loss to understand why this group is called 'bogus,'" Silcoff told the Citizenship and Immigration committee.
"Why has the minister not expressed concern about growing fascism and racism, instead of condemning Roma refugees?"
The government has attempted to address the refugee flood by imposing visa restrictions on certain countries, including Mexico. But that has caused diplomatic problems, particularly when dealing with countries within the European Union.
"Are the Roma claims proving to be a problem in light of free trade negotiations with Europe?" Silcoff prodded the Conservative MPs on the committee.
The proposed legislation will bring in fingerprinting and photos for those who apply for visas to visit Canada, and will give the minister of Public Safety the power to treat asylum seekers who arrive as a group differently from others.
These "irregular arrivals" can be detained for up to a year under Bill C-31, and won't be allowed to apply for permanent residency — or sponsor family members — for five years.
Kenney has said he'd like to see the Conservative majority pass the bill before the summer recess and have it come into force next fall.