The Roma of Hungary: A Canadian View, by Judy Young Drache

Judy Young Drache is a former senior public servant with some 25 years of experience in the Canadian government’s multiculturalism programs. In 1957 she arrived in the UK as a Hungarian refugee and immigrated to Canada in 1967. She is President of the Canada-Hungary Educational Foundation and lives in Ottawa.

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The Canadian government’s recent poster and media advertising campaign in and around Miskolc has raised some eyebrows both in Canada and in Hungary. What is this campaign all about? Perhaps to advertise Canada as that “most livable country”…and a “symbol of tolerance” –  described by Gáspár Miklós Tamás, one of Hungary’s best known intellectuals, in his long and thoughtful opinion piece of January 24, 2013.

Alas, no. TGM, as Mr Tamás is known in Hungary, leaves no doubt about his disenchantment with this ad campaign and what is behind it. The title of his article is “We respectfully object, Canada.” And because he is a classical egalitarian, he is even-handed in his critique of his own country’s democratic deficits and our rather un-Canadian public declaration that we are no longer the welcoming, generous country that we believed we were. He comments:

“Even the traditional North American liberal consensus is no guarantee that one of the world’s most livable countries, Canada, should not behave in a patently unintelligent way vis-à-vis a persecuted minority in some poor country. The stupefying arrogance of the Miskolc billboards, their gendarme-style high-handedness, their bureaucratic superciliousness displaying a deep disdain for the Hungarian public – Roma and non-Roma alike  –   should easily cure any one of us of our positive ‘culturalist’ prejudices.”’

How did we arrive at such a harsh judgment by someone who is otherwise a good friend of Canada? Canadians usually take pride in having a generous and open immigration policy; in fact, Canada is often thought of as the immigration country par excellence. In 1982 we won the UN’s Nansen medal for being compassionate in accepting refugees. Immigration has made our country what it is today – a diverse but tolerant society achieved through years of more or less peaceful negotiation and accommodation between the aboriginal peoples, the British and French settlers, and subsequent groups of immigrants, many of them refugees seeking a safe haven. For those who watch the news from Canada, it will be clear that these negotiations and accommodations are continuing to this day: for Canada this is ongoing business, work in progress.

The posters and billboards that went up in and around Miskolc are shameful and embarrassing for many Canadians; some consider them interference in another country’s internal affairs (can we imagine Ecuadorian or Romanian government posters in Canada telling Canadian mining companies to stay home?). Our posters are certainly humiliating for the Roma in Hungary because everybody knows that their message is aimed at them since they have been seeking asylum in Canada in significant numbers in the last three years (more about numbers below). Canadian media have given the news about the poster campaign the critical reaction it deserves. (See, for instance the Toronto Star article of Jan 25, 2013 which quotes Aladár Horváth, founder of the Civil Liberties Foundation in Hungary, as saying the campaign will provide further ammunition for ultra-right extremists to justify their racist attacks on the Roma.

The campaign is not only unwarranted, it’s also unnecessary, coming as it does, after Canada has changed its immigration and refugee system to shut the doors on refugee claims from Hungary by designating it a “safe” country. Moreover, the numbers of Hungarian (Roma) refugee claims in 2012 were already down to about a third of what they had been in the highest year, 2011. So the billboards and posters are adding insult to injury.

The billboards have provided Miskolc’s mayor, Ákos Kriza, with the opportunity to demonstrate that he is happy to have gotten rid of some of the Roma from his city and very unhappy that they should be coming back; he will have none of it. In fact, he will see to it that returning Roma are investigated, that the authorities keep a constant eye on them, that they cannot get their housing or property back, that their children will be put into state care, etc. The mayor’s outburst is even more curious as he must have been party to discussions with Canadian officials (perhaps even Minister Jason Kenney) about pending Canadian action to curb the Roma exodus, so this should not have come as a surprise to him. Mr Kriza after all, is not one of the many Jobbik mayors in small towns and villages who are openly anti-Roma; he is from the governing FIDESZ party. But his actions here are a good illustration of why Hungary should not be on the “safe country” list of Canada’s new immigration and refugee act. If your city leadership demonstrates this level of aggressive intolerance – promising reprisals against returning Roma – what should one expect from those officials and citizens who are openly bigoted?

Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney and Zoltán Balog, Hungarian Minister of Human Resources

Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney and Zoltán Balog, Hungarian Minister of Human Resources

It was clear to many involved in refugee and immigration matters that designating Hungary a “safe” country would likely be taken as a stamp of approval by Hungary and be the equivalent of condoning the institutional racism and discrimination faced by the vast majority of the Roma minority in Hungary. The Hungarian government would also be able to justify its contention that those making refugee claims were either fake claimants (“bogus refugees” as Kenney called them) abusing our generous system or “Gypsy criminals and parasites” – a common phrase in Hungarian media. The minister was made aware of such concerns and of fears that anti-Roma racism in Hungary is likely to continue or even increase.

These fears are being realized. The government controlled news agency MTI’s report on the billboard campaign bears this out. A January 19 article quotes the government spokesperson as saying: “last December Canada declared Hungary unequivocally to be a safe country and with this declaration they have made absolutely clear that they consider the refugee claims of Hungarian citizens completely unfounded. He added that representatives of the Hungarian government maintained contact with the Canadian ambassador on this issue and that the Canadian Immigration Minister had written a letter to the Hungarian Minister of the Interior in which he stated quite clearly that the steps Hungary is taking in its Roma integration strategy are outstanding and the planned poster campaign is being undertaken because of internal Canadian problems.”

It is worth noting that the Hungarian text uses the word “unequivocal” (egyértelmű) three times in the above sentences – presumably for emphasis. In the interests of style, I have used other words in two places in my translation (see underlined words above). It should be added that we do not know what the minister may have said in his letter; this might be a self-serving statement on the part of the Hungarian government spokesperson and the official news agency.

According to the Hungarian government, Canada has changed its refugee determination system because of ‘internal problems’ thus neatly transferring responsibility to Canada for the large number of Hungarians seeking asylum here. For lack of space I cannot give an account of Canadian immigration history or the full details of the recent complete overhaul of immigration and refugee policy. Suffice it to say that after a century of restrictive, exclusionist and racist policies,  Canadian immigration policy became more open from 1967 on, with a point system based on skills and labor market needs. And from 1976, the system was based on three pillars: economic, family class (independent and reunification), and humanitarian (refugees). The liberalization of the system opened the way for the introduction of multiculturalism policies at all levels of government and the implementation of programs to promote full participation, equal opportunity and social justice. All this required a balancing act of altruism and self-interest but acquired stability over the years because of the widespread and general acceptance by Canadians of the fact that integration of immigrants and refugees brings not only economic but social and cultural benefits to the country. Over the last forty years or so a consistently high percentage of Canadians (around 80-85%) considered that openness to immigration and the resulting ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural diversity are among their most cherished values; those that best characterize Canadian society today.

So why did our system change now? While some changes to the existing legislation were needed, mainly to deal with the large backlogs of  immigration and refugee cases, the complete overhaul the Harper government has now implemented is receiving a good deal of criticism from organizations and individuals as diverse as Amnesty International, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Bar Association, immigrant serving and social service agencies,  provincial governments and premiers, ethnic community organizations, heads of churches and religious institutions, politicians, and academics. The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) has called the new act “arbitrary, unfair, and unconstitutional.” Mitchell Goldberg, Vice-president of CARL, warned that there will inevitably be miscarriages of justice…and people may  be sent back to a serious risk of persecution.

The government claims that the new legislation is not only faster but also fairer. It’s not at all certain that officials will be able to manage the “faster” aspect without considerable additional human resources and a system already backlogged with thousands of undecided cases. But what is certain is that it is not going to be “fairer.” The new system is inequitable in that refugee claimants are treated differently depending on where they come from (“Designated Country of Origin” or DCO) and how they arrive (eg. in groups which can be designated as “irregular arrivals”). Deadlines for DCO claimants to make their claim and prove their case have become impossibly tight (30-45 days); in addition they have no recourse to the existing appeal process other than going to the courts – which is a near impossibility for most refugee claimants. There will also be a high level of ministerial discretion in the decision-making process. According to background information provided to Hungarian media about the billboard campaign, “claims from countries on the list will be rejected much faster in the future” – confirming, perhaps inadvertently, that claimants from Hungary should expect to be rejected. This sounds more like prejudging of cases and less like “fairness” based on the merit of each case which has been the hallmark of the system until now.

How are decisions made about being a safe country? This is where things get quite tricky. The government’s media release of Dec 14, 2012 casts everything in a positive light. “As part of the improvements to Canada’s asylum system, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act included the authority to designate countries of origin (DCOs) – countries that respect human rights, offer state protection, and based on the historical data from the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), do not normally produce refugees.” The backgrounder attached to the release explains that countries must meet each of the following “triggers” in order to be reviewed for potential designation: the existence of an independent judicial system; recognition of basic democratic rights and freedoms, including mechanisms for redress if those rights or freedoms are infringed; and the existence of civil society organizations.” However, the Minister can and has stipulated that in addition, certain quantitative and qualitative criteria be applied. For countries with more than 30 refugee claims finalized in any of the previous three years before being designated, the quantitative criteria apply, namely: “a combined rejection, withdrawal and abandonment rate of asylum claims at the IRB of 75% or higher; or combined withdrawal and abandonment rate of asylum claims at the IRB of 60% or higher.” For countries with fewer than 30 cases, the qualitative criteria apply: “the existence of an independent judiciary, recognition of basic democratic rights and freedoms and the existence of civil society organizations.”

Thus it is that Hungary is on the “safe country” list not because it is considered safe for all its citizens on the basis of “respect for human rights” or because it “offers state protection” but because too many Hungarian Roma have made a refugee claim in Canada in the last three years and a higher percentage than stipulated in the Act have had their claims rejected, withdrawn or abandoned. Forget the recognition of democratic rights or the existence of redress mechanisms, independent judiciary and other characteristics of “generally safe” countries.

Let us look at the numbers. As noted before, Canada has not always been open to immigrants and refugees. This year is the 30th anniversary of a landmark study by two historians, Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-48 made headlines about the way in which the Canadian government of the day kept out Jews fleeing Nazi occupied Europe before during and even after WWII. The phrase “none is too many” has become a symbol of closing doors to refugees and comes to mind when thinking about the current situation in Canada.  So, we might ask how many Roma refugee claims have been made in the last four years in Canada and how many is too many. Perhaps “none”? In 1956-57 Canada took in 38,000 Hungarian refugees despite having no refugee policy and not being a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention until 1969. This was the first large wave of refugees we ever accepted and helped settle from a single country. Despite the lack of routine procedures, Canada went on to accept several more groups of refugees: the Czechs (12,000) in 1968 and Ugandan Asians (5000) in 1972. In 1980, Canada admitted some 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, some sponsored by government but a large number by ordinary Canadians.

After Hungary joined the EU in 2004 it took until 2008 for Canada to lift the existing visa requirement for Hungarians, presumably because there had been a spike in Hungarian Roma refugee claimants in 1997-2001 which could only be stopped by the imposition of the visa in 2001. The numbers in the late 90’s were not that different from the numbers in the last few years and then as now what stemmed the flow was a clamp-down by the Canadian government. The numbers for the last few years were: 2009: 2,400; 2010: 2,300: 2011: 4,400; 2012 (the first three-quarters of the year): 1,500.  The numbers represent cases, most of which include more than one applicant, usually a family of 3- 5. Because the IRB, whose members assess the cases, is always in a backlog situation, only a small percentage of cases is reviewed in any one year. At this time there is a backlog of about 4,200 cases, some going back several years. In 2012 (up to October), out of a total of 3,249 cases on which final decisions were made, 232 cases were approved, 1,668 rejected, 1,233 withdrawn by the applicant, and 116 abandoned. The percentages of withdrawn and abandoned are similar for all four years. In 2011, the year with the highest number of claims, only 1990 cases were finalized and of those 838 were withdrawn, and 249 abandoned, a percentage of 55%. In 2012 that percentage is 42%. It is good to have these figures as the Minister has maintained for the last several years that 95-97% of all Hungarian claims had been withdrawn or abandoned. It is clear that this is not the case. See the report of the Canadian Council of Refugees.

Of course, behind the numbers are real people. There are an estimated 80,000 Roma in Canada, including some second and third generation, mostly living in large urban centres, particularly Toronto and region. Most of the Hungarian Roma have come in the last twenty years, many as refugee claimants  in the late 1990s and many more in the last few years. Therefore, information and data about their integration is hard to find and I am not aware of studies about it. However, being an immigration country, Canada has many public and private agencies assisting refugees and their integration into Canadian society. Gina Csanyi Robah, Executive Director of the Roma Community Centre of Toronto, has over the last few years gathered around her a team of people, mostly volunteers including recent refugee claimants, who are making a big difference in creating awareness and providing practical support to Roma refugees wherever they come from. For instance, in October 2012 Gina helped organize a Roma Health Forum in Toronto attended by 200 practitioners from 118 agencies such as the Red Cross, Children’s Aid, local school boards, Women’s College Hospital, and others, to discuss issues affecting Roma. The Centre also advocates with municipal, provincial and federal levels of government. It was set up in 1997 after the first group of Czech Roma arrived seeking refuge in Canada. For those interested, the Centre’s website has much useful information. Culturelink one of Toronto’s largest immigrant and refugee serving agencies receiving both public and private funding,  provides settlement and employment services among others; their long-term Roma Counsellor, Paul St Clair, has undertaken some statistical studies on Roma refugee claimants in Canada. In 2012 a one hour film documenting the life of some of the Roma refugee claimants in Canada was widely broadcast. Produced and directed by Karl Nerenberg and Malcolm Hamilton, Never Come Back is the advice given by a Roma in Hungary to refugee claimants waiting for decisions in Canada.

They were denied refugee status /The Canadian Catholic Register

Waiting for the word
The Canadian Catholic Register

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, especially from the Toronto area, that many Roma are actually integrating well into life in Canada. The Toronto school system has made accommodations to help integrate students from Roma families: some ESL teachers are learning Hungarian and special enrichment programs to help Roma children have been created. In such cases, many Roma children thrive in school: “In addition to the singing and dancing and art, there was an annotated slide show: Roma kids had taken pictures of the neighbourhood, and they talked about what it means to be in Canada; … One said: “Here we are not discriminated because we are different….He is eager to go to high school and the high school is eager to have him” says this article in the Toronto Star.

Some exceptional talent has come to Canada with the Roma refugees and a few individuals have been able to make careers in the arts and music, some in commerce or business. One example is Robi Botos, jazz musician, who came as a refugee in the late 90’s and whose latest performance took place in front of a full house in the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall in Toronto, with two world famous musicians, Branford Marsalis and Jeff Watts. Also on stage with Robi were members of his family who have recently made refugee claims – which as Robi says may not be successful. Paul Wells, editor- in- chief of Canada’s major (conservative) weekly newsmagazine, Maclean’s, closes his article about the concert with this: “’It deeply disappoints me to see discrimination coming from the government and some of the media in Canada,’ Botos said. He’s safe in Toronto, building one of that city’s more illustrious musical careers. For most of his family, the situation is more precarious. I make no claim to arbitrate their cases. When up to 50 Roma a day are landing at Pearson airport—and no other airport in the world—to make refugee claims, it’s worth a minister’s attention and concern. But would I want to send them home to Hungary, the way that country is going? No.”

Now that the government has clamped down on the Roma refugee influx from Europe, sanctuary is being provided to refugees in some churches in Toronto. “People with a conscience just can’t slam shut the doors on people” says Dr Mary-Jo Leddy, writer and activist, Founding Director of Romero House, a refugee centre, and adjunct professor of religion at the University of Toronto. She has been involved with the Southern Ontario Sanctuary Coalition which has met with churches, Mennonite community representatives, and rabbis to seek offers of sanctuary. The coalition’s 60 members represent congregations who organized in the early 1990s after a number of Eritreans were thought to have been wrongfully deported.

Much was made by the government and some media of the case of an extended family of Roma in Hamilton who had enticed other Roma from their region in Hungary to come and work for them, abusing the individuals and the refugee system. However this is the only known criminal case of such abuse by Hungarian Roma; the perpetrators have received jail sentences in Canada. In addition, one might mention an extreme case of virulent hate speech about the Roma by radical conservative journalist Ezra Levant. The video was received with such widespread outrage among Canadians that Sun Media that broadcast it was forced to remove it from its website and offered a full apology. They may be facing criminal charges – unlike a similarly obscene racist rant inciting hatred of Roma by Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer which is accepted as ‘freedom of speech’ by the government media authority and the courts in Hungary.

Clearly, there are anti-immigrant feelings in Canada too but on the whole, Canadians and the Canadian media have demonstrated a positive attitude to the refugees and many have condemned the new legislation. Sympathetic reporting and offers of help are common. A typical case is the 2012 report of the United Church Observer about refugees fleeing Europe and building new lives in Hamilton, Canada with beauty pageants, football clubs, and churches. “An array of Roma social groups are sprouting up in Hamilton, reflecting the community’s ongoing integration into Canadian society. … You can go out, you can talk to people, we can go to the restaurant, sit there, eat. … It’s like normal here. People like people. Everybody’s the same. Nobody is saying, ‘You’re black, you’re white, you’re yellow.’ It’s feeling like home.” There are plenty of other such examples.

Stephanie Silverman of  The Huffington Post (Canada) explains: “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. …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.

Canada’s national daily newspaper, The Globe and Mail declared on January 29, 2013: “We must let go of the idea that Canada’s refugee system is better, fairer, more generous or more humanitarian than other systems in the world. … [But] the tenor of the recent changes has irrevocably altered the terrain. The changes which took effect in December put the finishing touches on a round of reform that has brought a dramatic end to what was once known as Canada’s humanitarian tradition.”

The Saskatoon Star Phoenix on January 30, 2013 writes about the Premier of Saskatchewan’s successful intervention with the federal Minister of Immigration to stay the deportation of a home care worker and her disabled daughter, by chance Hungarians. “Most Saskatchewan residents were shocked at the cold-hearted and reactionary position of the federal government” in this and a number of other cases mentioned.

This last example points to a strong ideological rationale behind the legislation, confirmed in aspects of the act such as inclusion of sections to do with human smuggling, mandatory detention for some arrivals, emphasizing criminality, speeded up deportations, and delayed risk assessment for returning failed claimants to their former countries. Almost as an afterthought to the new act but separately from it, the government made an arbitrary decision in mid 2012 to cut medical care to refugees. This elicited a huge negative reaction from the medical professions and ordinary Canadians.  The name of the new Act itself is a signal: “Protecting Canada’s Immigration and Refugee System Act (June 2012).” Nomen est omen: the previously existing Act was named “Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (2002).” Notice how the emphasis has shifted from protecting refugees to protecting Canada’s refugee system.

In addition to ideological issues, it is clear that the government had economic-political considerations also; primarily vis-à-vis the European Union with whom extensive negotiations have been taking place to achieve a long term trade, economic and social partnership. The visa requirements that were in place for some EU member states such as Hungary and the Czech Republic were a major irritant to these negotiations. There is no clear answer as to why the visa requirement remains in place for the Czech Republic but it has not been re-imposed on Hungary. One might be inclined to say that the high numbers of refugee claims in the last few years from Hungary came in handy for the Canadian government to develop its new two tiered refugee determination system.

While many of the claimants may not be refugees in the Geneva convention sense (“well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion… and unable to avail themselves of the protection of the state”), several hundred cases have been accepted as such in the last few years. In some cases the appeal courts decided that years of systemic discrimination, fear of aggression, and lack of redress by the authorities amounted to persecution. In quite a number of cases decisions were changed on appeal; in 2012 the Federal Court sent back at least 16 cases to the IRB for re-determination.

Many Roma have come to Canada ‘merely’ to escape intolerance and poverty, wishing for a better life for themselves, and a secure future for their children. No doubt some came because they thought they would have an opportunity to make some money and go back home. There are no accurate figures on how many have returned to Hungary since 2009 when the numbers of claimants started to rise. Some have returned because their claims were rejected and evidently some withdrew their claims because they saw no hope of getting refugee status. Others could not find work or adapt to life in Canada. However, the most destitute Roma have not been making refugee claims; they have no means of getting to Canada or any hope for improving their lives.

Refugee advocates have criticized the inclusion of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Canada’s “safe country” list because there is evidence from all three countries that Roma suffer discrimination and even persecution. The situation in Hungary is considered generally worrisome by the international human rights community and there are no signs that it will get better any time soon. Many feel the situation is likely to get worse because of the economic outlook, widespread intolerance, and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the government to make the major effort required to put a stop to extremists and hate-mongers.

The latest appeal to the Hungarian government came in an address on January 31, 2013 by US Ambassador to the OSCE’s, Ian Kelly. Entitled “Statement on Discrimination against the Roma” the ambassador portrays the state of the Roma in several European countries as “more precarious than ever” and conveys his country’s deepening concern about discrimination and violence against Roma. With specific reference to Hungary, he reiterates the responsibility of national leaders to denounce hate speech in general and Zsolt Bayer’s recent “incendiary call” against Roma in particular.  “…senior members of Fidesz – of which Bayer was a founding member – and the party itself have refused to condemn Bayer’s comments. The link between hate speech and hate crime is well documented; we call on leaders to reject such speech and to actively promote tolerance.”

Minister Kenney is aware of the dire situation of the Roma in Hungary; nevertheless, the Canadian government moved ahead with the current restrictive legislative action and the billboard campaign. It’s a pity that Canada has not seen fit (like the US and international rights organizations) to condemn the rise of racism, public displays of hate and aggression, and the systemic discrimination against the Roma in Hungary and other European countries. Our dilemma is this: while it is Canada’s responsibility to maintain a fair and just system which continues to provide a safe haven to refugees, it is not our job to solve these problems in Europe. At the same time we should not be a willing instrument to be used by certain EU states to rationalize their inaction vis-à-vis their human rights obligations or to provide fodder to the racists among them. Our billboard campaign in Hungary is unfortunately likely to do both.


  1. @Yul:

    Of course I know that the Nazis not only sent the Jews to the death camps but also the Gypsies. And there just was “Day of Remembrance” for the many physically or mentally handicapped that also had to die in an institution not far from where we live.

    I still find it unbelievable how so many people agreed on the definition:
    “Lebensunwerte Menschen” – just put them to death …

    So there aren’t too many Gypsies left in Germany …

  2. Yul :
    Their plight and history of how they were/are treated in european countries is quite similar to the european Jews. In fact, there is a group of Klezmer and Roma musicians from several countries who have banded together to make gorgeous music together. They are called The Other Europeans…..

    I heard a German Jewish musical duo being interviewed many years ago and the questioner was obviously interested in how it felt to be Jewish in post-war Germany. But it turned out that these musicians were actually Roma, but had adopted Jewish names because they got a much better reception from Germans that way!

  3. Hi everyone,
    I just lost a long comment I had written to say a bit more on the subject and why I feel that Canada could and should have done (or still should do) more about the Roma situation in Hungary rather than a poster campaign and accept at face value what the Hungarian government representatives have said. I also wrote about what the Hungarian government (who as you all agree are the ones with responsibility) is now doing or not doing to improve the situation of the Roma in Hungary. Perhaps this is not such a big loss for you as I tend to be wordy. I don’t have time to re-do it now but may try another day. I have learnt my lesson: one should always try to save while being online. Sorry. Judy

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