One of the more pernicious elements of the new Immigration and Refugee Bill C-31 is the so-called "Designated Safe Country" (DSO) rule. This would designate certain countries as "safe" more or less assuring that refugee claims from any such countries would be quickly rejected. Our government has assured us that much care has gone into consideration of DSOs. Yet many organizations including, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS), the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and others have strongly argued that "creation of a list of designated 'safe 'countries of origin, give too much power to ministers and don't give refugees enough time to establish their cases before Canada's Immigration Refugee Board (IRB)."
Indeed Janis Roth, the Executive Director of Toronto JIAS voiced serious concerns stating, "We all know that a country that is deemed safe for some may not be safe for others. This bill also proposes to treat refugee claimants differently depending on how they arrive -- by boat or plane or as a single or in group -- and whether by way of a 'safe' country, and as such, we are concerned about the implications for the safety and protection of bona fide refugees."
The government has acknowledged that a large number of Roma refugees coming from Hungary make their way to Canada where they claim refugee status. Hungary has worked with the Ministry of Immigration to try and stem the tide. In fact some of the thinking behind the DSO regulation seems to come as a direct result of such work.
Tamás Király, Hungary's deputy head of mission in Ottawa made this very clear recently when he wrote in response to questions from a reporter, "We sincerely hope that Hungary will be a designated 'safe' country of origin. This would largely reduce the incentives for economic migrants to come to Canada as asylum seekers."
Such statements suggest that the Roma come to this country, not to escape discrimination and persecution, but simply to enhance their economic status. Thus they get labeled as bogus refugees. The truth though seems far different than what we are being told.
The Roma Community Centre in Toronto has been actively documenting the plight of recent Roma refugees to Canada. The story of the Mohacsi family is a chilling yet all too common tale. Violence, and hate seems to be a sad yet everyday occurrence for the Roma on the streets of many Hungarian cities, towns and villages.
Indeed the Hungarian government despite what it may state publically has shown a very different face behind the scenes. So much so that Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel felt compelled to return the Grand Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary that he received in 2004.
Amongst a number of reasons cited by Professor Wiesel was the fact that Laszlo Kover, the Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament, participated in a ceremony for Romanian-born author József Nyírő, a supporter of Hungary's dictator and Nazi ally Miklos Horthy. Professor Wiesel further noted that Nyírő's writings were recently implemented into Hungary's school curriculum, a situation he explained he simply could not be associated with.
More recently Elie Wiesel stood in solidarity with the Toronto Board of Rabbis who have spoken out strongly against Bill C-31 and its concomitant cuts to refugee health care. Wiesel wrote in a statement that was released publicly:
"As a former refugee, together with the Toronto Board of Rabbis, I feel morally compelled to remain on the side of other uprooted men and women everywhere. As long as they don't find new homes, living in permanent exile, their human rights are violated. Socrates himself chose death over exile. Today, as yesterday, a nation is judged by its attitude towards refugees..."
Hungary is not the only European country where the Roma face violence and even mortal danger. In Slovakia last month, a rogue police officer murdered three Romani citizens and injured two others. In the Czech Republic a few weeks ago, neo-Nazis in a series of three unprovoked attacks injured eight Roma young people. In the Bulgarian town of Slodanski, the only town in Bulgaria to ever elect an all Roma municipal council, a bomb attack at the Euroroma headquarters critically injured a Roma activist.
Amnesty International has spent much time tracking the discrimination faced by the Roma in Europe and in this documented report it's difficult not to understand and be terribly concerned about their plight.
There are those who have claimed that the Roma as a people have engaged in lawlessness and crime. Indeed in France some statistics demonstrate a noticeable increase in theft amongst those living in Roma encampments. These stats have been used by French authorities to justify large scale deportations of Roma people.
Yet to ascribe such negative characteristics to an entire people is grossly unfair some would even suggest racist. As a son of Jewish refugees to Canada, our own history is replete with Jews being described as thieves, beggars and cheats. Many trying to come to North America from Europe in the early 20th century were denied entry as a result. Sadly poverty and discrimination beget lawlessness, however targeting an entire identifiable group for the actions of some is not the answer.
Here in Canada we have accepted scores of Roma refugees over many years. They have become an active and respected community in Toronto where most have settled.
I am proud of my own community for standing shoulder to shoulder with the Roma over many decades of persecution. Historically both our communities understood the ultimate expression of hatred; for us it was the Holocaust or in Hebrew the Shoah; for the Roma, the only other group targeted by the Nazis for extermination, it was called the "Porajmos" or the "Devouring." Both our communities lost generations of children and both of us intrinsically feel a necessary kinship as a result.
Nate Leipciger, past co- Chair of the Canadian Holocaust Survivors Association explained the bond between Jews and Roma best in a recent article when he stated, "The special relationship is that we found ourselves during the Shoah being together in Auschwitz and being persecuted at the same time. It was safe for Germans, just as Hungary is safe today for Hungarians. It is not safe for Roma."