A few nights ago, I watched the North American premiere of the film Just the Wind at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film's raw depiction of the experience of racism and oppression experienced by the Roma people left me deeply disturbed.
The family portrayed in this film lives in a poor, rural area of Hungary facing daily discrimination and harassment while attempting to maintain the semblance of normalcy. They hear of the violent murder of a neighbouring Roma family perpetrated by strangers who arrived in the night and killed the family, children and all, in cold blood with shotguns. The film is based on a series of racist murders committed against the Roma people in Hungary in 2008-2009. Such violent attacks continue today.
Beyond the sheer brutality of these murders, I was further horrified when the the family in the film shared their wish to escape to Canada. As the filmmaker put it, Canada, and specifically Toronto, is seen as "some kind of paradise" to Roma in Hungary, often with no detailed knowledge of this place. This brought on a nauseating feeling as I thought of the current government's portrayal of Hungary as a "safe country" for the Roma people, who are themselves portrayed as bogus claimants. I thought of the Roma refugee claimants I have seen in my clinic, who are simply trying to find safety for themselves and their families, like anybody would. The government has pushed through unpopular Bill C-31 and changes to the Interim Federal Health Program for refugee healthcare which will both fast-track these people to deportation and deny them healthcare services while they are here.
Persecution of the Roma across Europe
Perhaps a lesser-known fact about the Holocaust, is that along with six million Jews, this event also included the murder of over 500,000 Roma people. Originating in the 11th century A.D. from Northern India this group has suffered enslavement and subsequent persecution throughout Europe where they have settled over time. They appear to be considered outsiders in every land. In Eastern Europe, they are outright discriminated against with many Roma children being sent to segregated schools with inferior education. These people have been constantly subjected to various racist depictions as nomadic gypsies with a tendency towards crime and drug use, with few attempts being made to address the root causes such as lack of access to education, housing, employment and dignity. Even in Western Europe, where the situation is deemed to be better for the Roma people, just recently, France gained widespread criticism in 2010 for deporting thousands of Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria.
Hungary's human rights abuses against Roma
The film is set in Hungary at the time the 2008-2009 attacks against Roma people. These attacks were strongly denounced by Amnesty International which has recognized the racial motivation for these crimes and denounced the lack of protection for this people in this country. This violence is not merely bred through fringe groups, but even incited by political parties. Just last month, a march organized by the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary drew out 1,000 people who chanted racist anti-Roma slogans and slung concrete at their homes. The police did nothing in response. This party gained seats in the Hungarian parliament for the first time in 2010 at which time they proposed rounding up all the Roma to place them in "public order protection camps" with curfews. There have even been documented cases of forced sterilization of Roma women in Hungary.
There are no "safe countries"
Through the implementation of Bill C-31 and the recent cuts to refugee health care, Jason Kenney is expected to soon announce a list of so-called "safe countries." Refugee claimants from these countries will be given a shortened refugee claims processing time making it difficult to secure a lawyer and obtain documents, with the intended goal of fast-tracking deportations back to their country of origin. During this time, refugee claimants from these countries will have effectively no access to healthcare, including emergency care in the event of a heart attack. History has taught us that a country that is safe for the majority can be very unsafe for the minority. We must instead assess each individual refugee's claim on its own merits taking into account situations like domestic violence, discrimination based on sexual orientation and the concerns of ethnic minorities. Despite clearly being unsafe for the Roma, Hungary is widely anticipated to be on this list of safe countries.
Unfortunately, Canada is no paradise for the Roma people. I dread the day that I may have to look into the eyes of a Roma family in my office and say that Canada has decided Hungary is a safe place for them, and therefore has made Canada unsafe by denying them healthcare services. I apologize to the Roma people as a Canadian, but more importantly, I vow to continue the fight alongside them and frontline workers around the country to push for a fairer immigration system, because there are no safe countries, seemingly including my own.