Why Canada's "safe" country scheme offers no refuge for Roma refugees
On December 14, 2012, Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, unveiled the Federal government's "Designated Countries of Origin" list. This list is comprised of 27 countries, including 25 member states of the European Union, Croatia, and the United States of America. A designated country of origin (DCO) is a country declared as "safe," on grounds that it can provide adequate protection to its citizens and therefore not likely to produce refugees. The list is one part of the reforms tabled in Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act.
Refugee advocacy groups have detailed the many problems with the DCO policy. The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, for example, has deemed it "arbitrary, unfair, and unconstitutional," and called it a "travesty" that violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The DCO policy denies refugee claimants hailing from so-called "safe" countries important procedural safeguards, opens the door to poor decision-making, and creates a real probability that people needing protection will be returned to their countries of origin to face persecution. Under the new regime, DCO claimants have only 30 days to prepare their claim, which is not enough time to meet with a lawyer and properly document their persecution. They are denied rights of appeal and the ability to remain in Canada while they ask the Federal Court to review their case. DCO claimants are also denied access to health care.
The DCO policy thus creates a radically different, two-tiered refugee determination system. It also discounts the treatment of some minority groups in so-called "safe" countries, such as religious minorities or sexual identity groups, and, perhaps most particularly, the Roma in Europe, whom Minister Kenney has repeatedly singled out as being "bogus."
Minister Kenney argues that as citizens of the European Union, Roma could simply seek asylum in another country within Europe if they face persecution. This is a misleading argument, since the Dublin Regulation prevents EU citizens from claiming asylum in other member states. Minister Kenney also interprets the lower-than-average acceptance rates for Hungarian Roma in Canada as proof that they are not refugees but either economic migrants seeking better opportunities in Canada or criminals intent on abusing Canada's generous social systems.
Minister Kenney's view of the Roma is ill-informed and incorrect. It ignores the well-founded complaints of Roma refugee claimants being taken advantage of by predatory immigration consultants in Canada. It also discounts the near 1,000-people accepted as refugees from Hungary by Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board in the last decade.
This tendency to cry "none is too many" against Roma has historical precedence in Canada as well as Europe. Throughout history, Romani people have been enslaved, sold, and evicted, as well as subjected to ethnic cleansing, persecution, discrimination, and prejudice. Many European countries forcibly sterilized Romani women until as recently as 2004, and many European countries still force Romani children to attend segregated schools. Canada instituted visa requirements for Hungarian nationals in 2001 and for Czech nationals in 1997 and 2009 as an openly-direct measure to keep Roma out of Canada (the visa periods were only lifted because of international pressure, including EU-Canada relations).
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In the present-day, Roma comprise Hungary's largest minority. They are also the poorest, with the highest levels of unemployment and the lowest education rates. Extremist but politically powerful groups such as Jobbik advocate "swatting" Roma "parasites" from the country.
Jobbik's strong momentum in Hungary and the lack of police and institutional protection for Roma have encouraged a surge in hate crime-related violence. Amnesty International has criticized Hungary (and other DCO-EU countries, such as the Czech Republic) for failing to provide Roma equal protection from ethnic discrimination and hate-crime related violence. The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights has also documented the shameful conditions faced by Roma in Hungary and throughout Europe.
By designating Hungary a "safe" country for refugees, Minister Kenney has made it difficult for Roma refugee claimants to seek asylum in Canada. Indeed, the DCO scheme marks a profound shift in Canada's approach to refugee protection: it shows Canada reneging on its commitment to provide every refugee claimant a fair hearing conducted in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also shows Canada continuing a too-long tradition of stereotyping and vilifying Roma who desperately need protection. The DCO policy is not only extremely damaging for Roma who flee persecution, it also calls into question Canada's commitments to refugee protection under both domestic and international law.
1417: Germany's first known anti-Roma law comes into effect. Forty eight more laws come into force over the next three centuries.
1471: Swiss law banishes Roma from the country.
1500s: England brands and enslaves Roma. Spain and Portugal enslave and sell Romani people. Roma are expelled from Norway and Denmark.
1510: Switzerland orders the death penalty for any Roma within their region. Other European countries forbid the entry of Roma into their lands.
1612: France evicts all Roma out of France by way of court order.
1665: The "wholesale deportation" of Roma and "poor people" from England to Jamaica and Barbados is recorded.
1700s: Austria forbid Roma to marry and orders Romani children into forced adoption/orphanages.
1710-1721: Hungary outlaws Roma, and they become targets of "Gypsy hunts". Romani language and nomadic lifestyle are soon also outlawed and forbidden.
1800s: Roma are expelled from Belgium and Denmark. Swabian (German) government organizes a conference on "Gypsy scum" (Das Zigeunergeschmeiss), where the military is empowered to keep Roma from settling.
1855-1864: Romania frees all Roma from their enslavement - slavery existed in Romania since the 13-14th centuries.
1900s: Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland, Norway enact special laws denying the rights of Roma to live in the country, impose laws detaining Roma in work camps; subject Roma women to forced sterilization; and order ethnic cleansing measures leading to WWII.
1939-1945: Roma were ethnically targeted along with the Jews in the Holocaust. Death count ranges from 300,000 - 1.5 million.
For more information on these topics:
"A Chronology of significant dates in Romani history" by Ian Hancock/The Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC).
"The Roma as victims of genocide," by Ronald Lee for the Roma Community Centre.
"Timeline of the Persecution Against the Roma," by Facing History and Ourselves, compiled from multiple sources.
"A brief Romani Holocaust Chronology" by Ian Hancock, condensed from "Gypsy History in Germany and Neighboring Lands: A Chronology to the Holocaust and Beyond," in Nationalities Papers, 19(3):395-412(1991).