Another Friday morning “non-threat” from Viktor Orbán

According to some analysts, Viktor Orbán’s latest Friday morning interview was perhaps one of the most revealing and most frightening. On such occasions the prime minister sometimes unwittingly reveals facts about himself and the country that would perhaps best remain hidden.

I already mentioned his inappropriate quip about the unwelcome German tanks in 1944. He went on to make a “non-threatening” remark about those who do not embrace Fidesz. In connection with the clearly fraudulent tobacconist shop concessions, he said: “I am a mild-mannered person, so I am not saying this to threaten anyone, but if we wanted to enforce political considerations in such a tender, there would not be a single left-wing winner.” As Erik D’Amato wrote on politics.hu,  “if Viktor Orbán wanted to he could crush you like an ant, but he won’t, because he’s chill.”

threat commons.wikimedia.org

Threat / commons.wikimedia.org

Orbán again beat the drum about his government’s accomplishments, starting with the country’s fantastic economic achievement that by now “the whole world recognizes.” Please, anyone who’s heard such praise, stand up! I also learned from this interview that Hungary’s economic growth was respectable in 2011 but then came a “second wave of economic crisis in Europe” that caused all the trouble in Hungary. Thus, the Hungarian government’s unorthodox policies had nothing to do with the recession that followed two years of small economic growth.

Orbán actually boasted about his illegal seizure of private pension accounts from millions of citizens when he described how “we reorganized the system of pensions and took away the money from the financial markets,  taxed the banks, forced the multinationals to pay taxes.” He admitted that he could do all that because of his party’s super majority. The truth? The pensions were taken away from the people and not the markets. Both the banks and the multinationals had paid taxes before; what he and his right hand, György Matolcsy, did was to levy crippling additional taxes on them.

The untrue statements didn’t end here. Orbán claimed that the European Union wants to force the Hungarian government to “take away from ordinary people … lower pensions … lower social welfare, decrease child support.” Orbán categorically stated that he will never satisfy such demands from the European Union because they amount  to an austerity program, a concept whose very mention is forbidden by Fidesz.  But the fact is that every time the chips were down Orbán gave in to the demands of the European Union concerning the budget deficit. Except the Orbán government refuses to use the word “austerity” (megszorítás). All sorts of other words are substituted for the austerity packages that followed each other in rapid succession throughout 2011 and 2012. One of these synonyms is “zárolás” (sequestration, freezing of funds), which according to Orbán “doesn’t take money away from people.” So, if the Ministry of Human Resources must spend less on education or healthcare it does not affect, according the economic wizardry of the Hungarian prime minister, the well being of the country’s citizens.

It is also clear that Orbán is unwilling to begin serious structural reforms. If Hungarians don’t like to hear about austerity they are equally leery about “reforms.” Their experience in the past has been that reform means a diminishment of their income or their access to social welfare benefits. Instead, Orbán is ready to contemplate such suggestions as spending less on government bureaucracy, further raising taxes on banks and the multinationals, and even increasing the transaction tax rate “if the European Union insists on a lower deficit.”

And finally, a few words about Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward his own role as prime minister of the country. Ever since 2002  Orbán has often repeated that “the nation cannot be the opposition.” He equates his own political side with the nation. Those who have a different set of political views are outside of the nation. At the end of the interview this interpretation of his own role became clear: he considers himself the prime minister of those who are Fidesz supporters.

I already mentioned this gentle soul’s words about his limitless power to grant tobacconist licenses based on political considerations. Orbán explained further: “I would like to make it perfectly clear that I will never turn my back on our supporters. Why is it wrong if entrepreneurs who share our values and otherwise fulfill the requirements win these tenders?… To turn our backs on our own voters, our followers (hiveink), our supporters just because we politicians will receive less criticism  this way, that I will never accept. We have to endure these criticisms because if our followers cannot count on us, who can?”

It’s no wonder that last night Ágnes Vadai (DK) in an interview on Egyenes beszéd kept referring to Viktor Orbán as “the man who calls himself Hungary’s prime minister.”

Iván Bächer: “The educated tobacconist”

Ever since its appearance Saturday in Népszabadság Iván Bächer’s little piece entitled “The educated tobacconist” has been the talk of the country. Or at least of those who are critics of the Orbán government’s policies. Overnight it became the most read article on Népszabadság. Hundreds of people called attention to it on Facebook; they find haunting similarities between the events of 1938 and 2013. Sure, the victims then were citizens of Jewish extraction while today’s discrimination is based on whether one is a supporter of the present government or not. Fidesz is busily taking away the livelihood of the many in order to give it to the few. Just as it was unconstitutional then, it is unconstitutional now. But at least the Horthy regime didn’t claim that Hungary was a democracy.

The story the tobacconist reads to the new owner of his store was written by Ernő Szép (1884-1953), poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist. He survived the Holocaust, but in his remaining years lived in dire poverty. You can read more about him here.

Iván Bächer (1957-) is a prolific writer. He regularly publishes political commentaries in the weekend edition of Népszabadság

* * * 



-Are you the tobacconist here?

-Yes, I …. used to be.

-Well, yes. And I will be.

-What do you mean?

-I won the concession for this tobacconist shop.


-Thanks, but only from July ….

-I know.

-In connection with this I have a question.

-What can I do for you?

-How long have you been doing this?

-I have been here for twenty-four years. I took over the shop from my father. And he opened the shop after he returned from service in a labor battalion.

-Oh, so he was a soldier.

-Well, not quite. In any case I was born into this business.

-Excellent. I have a suggestion.

-I am listening.

-Could you teach me a little about this business? During May and June I would sit here and would observe. I would pay you for it. It would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I would learn the trade and you could more easily start a new life.

-I understand.

-Is it okay?

-Yes, okay, but only on one condition.


-I would like to read you a short piece of writing and you would agree to listen to it.

-Writing? Everything has been decided already. Look ….

-No, no, not that kind of writing. Fiction. A little feuilleton.

-Feuilleton? What’s that?

-Well, it’s like a short story but simpler. This one was written by Ernő Szép. Fifty years ago.

-Such a long time ago?

-It wasn’t that long ago. So, sit down, in the back you can find a stool.

-A stool? Don’t you have something more comfortable?


-Well, there will be.

-Of course, there will be but until then sit down and listen. I was preparing for your visit because I was waiting for you. So, here it is.

“The wife of an officer of high rank is entitled to be called  ‘milady.’ She is good looking and dresses well. She purchases her hats from the store of Margit Roth that was the most elegant millinery shop on Váci Street in Pest. One nice day in 1938 she visited Margit Roth, who told me the story herself. First, she tried on a few hats just out of habit, but then she sat down and lit a cigarette and asked Margit Roth to join her at the small table covered with lace and decorated with a vase.

Please sit down for a while, my dear Margit. I would like to discuss something with you. Most likely you haven’t heard it yet because it is still not official that they will take stores away from the Jews. My dear Margit, believe me that I’m very sorry that I have to give you such bad news. When? It is a question of a month or two, my dear. They just began to prepare the bill in the Ministry of the Interior. It’s too bad that you are also Jewish or rather of Jewish origin but in this case being a convert means nothing. So, my dear, they will take away your beautiful shop too. And since this is the situation, which I truly regret because you know what a good friend I was to you, I immediately thought that I would put in a claim for your store. We have four children and my husband unfortunately gambled away his inheritance years ago when he was still a captain. So for me this millinery shop will be a gift from God.

And now I come to the point. My dear Margit, I came to you for a small favor. Please spend some time with me. Let’s say every morning from ten to eleven. That the millinery shop will be mine is certain. My husband already took the necessary steps. And it will be good for you too that you spend some time with me. You will be pleased that I will inherit your store and not some stranger. I will never forget my beloved Margit. My dearest, is it all settled? I think I will start learning the trade already tomorrow. At 9:30? Of course, I can come. How kind of you. Sorry, I have to run to the hairdresser, kisses my dear, and see you tomorrow. Bye.”

-Ahem. Interesting. I don’t know why you read that story to me. After all, you are not a milliner.  In any case, you are an educated person.

-I’m not educated, but I read now and then.

-No, you are an educated person. But you will not get far with that here. Well, it doesn’t matter. May I come tomorrow? Let’s say at 9:30 … Half past nine will be fine for me too.

-Don’t mention it. I will be expecting you.

-See you tomorrow.

-See you.

Testimony on the situation of Roma in Hungary by the European Roma Rights Centre

For consideration by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, U.S. Helsinki Commission

The situation of Roma in Hungary

Human rights NGOs have consistently reported that Roma in Hungary are discriminated against in almost all fields of life, particularly in employment, education, housing, health care, and access to public places. Yet government representatives maintain that the problems faced by Roma relate to their economic and social difficulties, rather than racism and prejudice against Roma in Hungary. A similar view of the Hungarian authorities has been noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in its report following a mission to Hungary.

In January 2013, following a complaint initiated in 2005 by two Romani people represented by the Chance for Children Foundation and the ERRC, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Hungary violated the European Convention on Human Rights in a case challenging the segregated education of Romani children in a special school. The Court underlined that there was a long history of wrongful placement of Romani children in special schools in Hungary and that the State must change this practice. The Court concluded that ‘positive obligations incumbent on the State in a situation where there is a history of discrimination against ethnic minority children’ would have required Hungary to provide necessary safeguards to avoid the perpetuation of past discrimination or discrimination practices.

State response to violence against Roma

In Hungary the European Roma Rights Centre examined the progress in 22 known cases of violence against Roma. In these incidents seven people died, including a five-year old boy, and a number of individuals were seriously injured. Ten Romani homes were set on fire with various levels of destruction. Guns were involved in 10 of the examined cases and in two cases hand- grenades were used. Out of the 22 attacks, nine, resulting in six deaths, are believed by police to have been committed by the same four suspects who are currently on trial.

Police misconduct and procedural errors were documented during the investigation of one of the violent crimes against Roma, as raised by NGOs and later confirmed by the Independent Police  Complaints Committee and by the Head of Police. Misconduct by the National Security Service was also found.

In the majority of the cases examined, the information provided by State authorities was inadequate. Where information was provided, limited results of investigation and prosecution were revealed. In several cases information was not provided by the authorities, who cited data protection and criminal procedure laws.

The Hungarian government does not systematically monitor racist violence. Police, prosecutors and court officials are reluctant to consider racial bias motivation as an aggravating circumstance to crimes: it is not explicitly included in the Criminal Code (only “base” motivation is included). Hate crimes are dealt with as a separate legal provision but are not linked to other crimes.

In Hungary, there are no specific protocols or guidelines developed for police and prosecutors on how to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. In addition, there is no systematic monitoring of racist violence, or the collection of data disaggregated by ethnicity about the victims of crimes. There are no reliable statistics on the real number of racially-motivated crimes in Hungary: according to available statistics the number of cases investigated under the hate crime provision of Hungary’s Criminal Code is extremely low.

Law enforcement abuse against Roma

Following an incident in 2010, the ERRC and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union represented a Romani woman in domestic procedures and before the European Court of Human Rights. In June 2012 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Hungary had violated the European Convention of Human Rights in a case of police violence against a Romani woman.

In its judgment, the European Court found that there had been a substantive and a procedural violation of Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment). The Court concluded that the police used excessive force during the incident, and that such use of force resulted in injuries and suffering of the applicant, amounting to degrading treatment. The Court also noted that no internal investigation or disciplinary procedure appeared to have been carried out within the police force concerning the appropriateness of the police action. The Court also found that no adequate investigation had been carried out into Ms Kiss’ allegations. However it rejected the claim of discrimination (under article 14), finding there was no evidence of discriminatory conduct by the police. Anti-Roma demonstrations and statements Romani individuals and communities continued to be victims of intimidation, hate speech and various violent physical attacks throughout the last two years. The ERRC’s non-exhaustive list on Hungary includes eight attacks in 2012.

Paramilitary groups have been marching and organising demonstrations in Hungarian villages since 2006. In spring 2011, paramilitary groups marched and patrolled, particularly in the Hungarian village of Gyöngyöspata, harassing and intimidating Romani communities. Members of the organisation patrolled the town, where they prevented the Romani residents from sleeping by shouting during the night, threatened Roma with weapons and dogs and followed them every  time they left their houses, unimpeded by local police. Human rights NGOs raised concerns and called on State authorities to take immediate action. During these unlawful actions Romani women and children were relocated due to the threat of violence. As a result of racial harassment, and due to stress, a Romani woman in her eighth month of pregnancy delivered her baby early and needed to be hospitalised. The incidents have been reported by the US State Department in its Hungary Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2011 alongside other incidents.

Similar far-right movement activities continued in 2012, when several demonstrations were organised in Devecser, Cegléd and Miskolc. In Devecser pieces of concrete and other missiles were thrown at Roma houses, and one female activist was injured. In an open letter to the Hungarian Minister of Interior and the National Chief of Police, three Hungarian NGOs expressed their concern about the violence in Devecser, stating that by not dispersing the demonstration, the police failed to ensure the rights to freedom, equality and security of the local inhabitants. The Ministry and the police responded by saying they considered the police intervention in Devecser had been adequate.

Incitement to hatred is a common occurrence in Hungary. One of the latest examples was the publication of an op-ed in the Hungarian daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap on 5 January 2013 by a leading journalist and co-founder of the ruling FIDESZ party, calling Roma “animals” that “need to be eliminated” “right now by any means”.   This kind of inflammatory language is especially dangerous in Hungary. Bayer was initially criticised by the Deputy Prime Minister, Tibor Navracsics; Navracsics later defended Bayer, saying that he could not imagine that Bayer seriously thought what he said in his article. Key senior figures in the government, e.g. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the Minister with responsibility for Roma issues, Zoltán Balog, did not officially condemn the racist article by Bayer on behalf of the Hungarian Government.

In response to the incident, the ERRC joined with a coalition of Hungarian NGOs in asking domestic companies and Hungarian divisions of multinationals to take a stand against racist commentary in Hungary. The NGOs have asked, among others, Vodafone, T-Com, FedEx, IKEA and Procter and Gamble to reconsider advertising in Magyar Hírlap.

To date seven companies have said they will no longer place advertising in the Hungarian newspaper that published the extreme anti-Roma statements. Erste Bank blacklisted Magyar Hírlap after the NGOs’ call, and expressly brought it to their media agency’s attention to “act more prudently next time” when dealing with the publication of their advertisements. They also emphasised that the bank will not advertise in any media whose content “hurts the dignity of others, or uses an inflammatory tone regarding any minority, ethnicity, or religious group”. The leaders of CIB Bank said that the CIB Group will refrain from advertising in Magyar Hírlap and its portal “until the editorial staff categorically condemns Zsolt Bayer’s writing and ensures that both publications are free from writings that include hate speech”. IKEA, FedEx, and GDF Suez also distanced themselves from the article, and stated they do not plan to advertise in the online version of the newspaper in the future.

On March 15, 2013, a national holiday in Hungary which is also the “Day of Hungarian Freedom  of Press” the Hungarian Government awarded the journalist Ferenc Szaniszló the “Táncsics Mihály” award and honoured him as the “journalist of the year in Hungary”.  Mr Szaniszló is infamous for spreading Jewish conspiracy theories and describing the country’s Roma minority as “human monkeys.”

The award was given for “extraordinary journalistic achievements” and was presented by the Minister of Human Resources, Zoltán Balog, who is also in charge of integration of Roma. Balog claimed that he did not know who had received the award, but still handed it over to Szaniszló. Balog later distanced himself from the views of Szaniszló.

Recently, Canadian authorities launched a billboard campaign in Miskolc, Hungary, to deter Romani asylum seekers. The majority of Hungarian Romani asylum-seekers to Canada originate from this town. The billboards around the city stated that “Canada’s refugee system has changed” and that “Asylum claims are evaluated within weeks instead of years”. The billboards further cautioned the public that “Applicants with unjustified immigration claims are sent home faster”.

A side effect of the billboard campaign in Miskolc has been the aggravation of the hostile atmosphere that Romani people have to face every day. The Mayor of Miskolc Ákos Kriza (member of the governing party FIDESZ) stated that, “Miskolc will not welcome back repatriated Roma refugee claimants arriving from Canada”.  A couple of days after his appearance on national television, Mr Kriza announced that he will “keep the criminal elements out of Miskolc by checking whether any of the people who left for Canada also took advantage of social assistance from the city or the central government.” He claimed that he had already found five people who were ineligible and who thereby committed a crime. He got in touch with the police. He will do everything to prevent “these criminals from settling in the city. Moreover, criminals currently residing in Miskolc will be driven out by the authorities.” He even threatened returning Romani parents that the authorities would take their children away and place them under state supervision.

After the campaign in Forró (near Miskolc) anonymous anti-Roma graffiti appeared on houses calling on the Roma to “go to Canada”.

Suggested questions to the Hungarian Government:

Does the Hungarian Government keep detailed data on the number and type of racially motivated crimes committed against Roma, and in particular Romani women, as well as information on prosecutions? Please supply detailed information.

  • What measures have been adopted to bring the Hungarian criminal legislation in line with international standards on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes?
  • What professional training and capacity-building activities have been implemented for law-enforcement, prosecution and judicial officials dealing with hate crimes?
  • What measures have been adopted to ensure that access to counselling, legal assistance and justice for victims of hate crimes is explored, in co-operation with relevant actors?


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.

* * *

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.