The autumn sky is a hazy blue and the day unseasonably warm, but the handful of men and women gathered outside Metropolitan Toronto’s main hostel for homeless families hardly seem to notice. Roma refugee claimants from the Czech Republic, they are tired, fed up and deeply distrustful of the reporter trying to speak with them through an interpreter. Too many media accounts, they say, have perpetuated negative stereotypes about the Roma—many find the term Gypsy pejorative—or suggested that their claims of racial persecution in the Czech Republic are unfounded. As their children play in the parking lot, they speak of other difficulties: excessively slow processing of their claims, the separation of families, dealing with doctors without a translator. “Just to become eligible to apply for refugee status is taking up to six months, instead of the usual six to eight weeks,” explains translator Paul St. Clair, a Toronto consultant of Slovak origin who left Czechoslovakia in 1968. “The whole process is wearing them down.”
Canadian officials, it seems, are almost as weary of a crisis that no one appeared to foresee. Until recently, the flow of Roma refugee claimants was a mere trickle, beginning in April, 1996, when Canada lifted visa requirements for Czech citizens. Then,
last August, a TV program aired in the Czech Republic portraying Canada as an ideal destination for refugees, with streamlined immigration procedures and easy access to social assistance. The number of Czech nationals claiming refugee status quickly jumped—an estimated 1,000 people between late August and early October, compared with less than 200 in all of 1996. With Toronto’s overburdened hostel system bursting at the seams,
Canada last week re-imposed the visa requirement on Czech citizens. But some observers branded the move as unfair—and a slap in the face for people of Roma heritage.
According to Ronald Lee, a Canadian of Roma heritage, the flood of refugees was a crisis waiting to happen: all that was needed was a window of opportunity, like the eased travel restrictions, and a trigger like the TV documentary. The Roma remain a target of cultural oppression in the Czech Republic, Lee says; barriers to education and employment are entrenched and even access to public places such as restaurants and swimming pools can be difficult. Lee, the Canadian delegate to the International Romani Union, which advises the United Nations on Romani problems,
also emphasizes that the stereotypes about the Roma are untrue. ‘We are not talking about nomads with carts and dancing bears,” he says. “Many of the people in shelters have trades and education. I have met bricklayers, truck drivers, a telecommunications engineer, a musicologist.”
So far, immigration lawyers report that almost none of the Roma claims heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board have been refused. In most cases, says Czechspeaking Toronto immigration lawyer George Kubes, the board has found that Roma refugees have good reason to believe the Czech government is unwilling or unable to protect them from life-threatening situations. According to Kubes, it was clear Ottawa had to do something to deal with the flood, but he maintains that re-imposing the visa was a mistake. “It’s shocking,” he says. We took these people at the rate of almost 100 per cent but now others can’t come.”
The Czech government of President Vaclav Havel, meanwhile, has been embarrassed by the flight of the Roma at a time when it is trying to establish itself as a modern democracy with a place in NATO and the European Union. As a result of the exodus to Canada, Havel and Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus have demanded more education and employment opportunities for the Roma. But some members of Canada’s Czech community insist Roma refugee claims are not legitimate. In a letter sent to the Immigration, Foreign Affairs and the Refugee Board, the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada said the environment in the Czech Republic is “not distinctly different from Canada’s,” while refugees from other parts of the world are in “real danger.” One prominent board member—Peter Munk, CEO of Barrick Gold Corp.—resigned because he felt the letter violated the principles of tolerance and co-operation. But association officials stand by its contents. “If you are white, and you say something that is not exactly popular but it’s true, it’s always [called] racist,” says association president Blanca Rohn.
Such pronouncements have enraged established members of Canada’s Roma community, spurring them to found their first lobby group, the Roma Advocacy Centre. And according to Lee, future Roma refugees “will continue to come because conditions in the former Soviet bloc countries are not likely to change radically. The Roma are bona fide political refugees.” Roma families struggling to escape the limbo of emergency shelters can only hope that Canadian officials agree.
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