Roma Rights in Canada
Last year, while working alongside refugee claimants, I held a small child in my arms and looked on as her parents stared at me in disbelief. In their country people don’t hold their children, they run over them with their cars or throw Molotov cocktails through their windows. So when they saw me showing attention and love to their child they were speechless, and I have to admit, so was I. I had never encountered others who had been so palpably scared by deep-seeded racism that it forced them to flee their homes and come to Canada, and this has been just one of my experiences with the Roma.
In Eastern Europe the Roma are considered second class citizens and have been targeted by skinheads and neo- Nazis in countries such as Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. They face frequent assaults, beatings, discrimination in housing and employment, and threats to their lives with no real retribution to those who strike out against them. But according to Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, these people are ‘bogus’ refugees that come from ‘safe’ countries and are abusing Canada’s immigration system.
In mid February Kenney tabled Bill C-31: Protecting Canada’s Immigration Act in the House of Commons. Following its release the bill has faced heavy criticism from human rights activist. Amnesty International responded to the bill, claiming “Bill C-31, introduced by the government on February 16, 2012, falls far short of international legal requirements with respect to human rights and refugee protection.” The article goes on to highlight Amnesty’s concerns with, “the fallacy that countries are “safe” when it comes to human rights protection simply because they are democratic”, and the, “discriminatory treatment with respect to something as fundamental as access to justice”. Béatrice Vaugrante, Director General of Amnesty International Canada’s francophone branch describes it this way: “The violations and shortcomings in Bill C-31 are fundamental and go to the heart of international refugee and human rights principles which Canada has helped to establish.”
One of the concerns that the bill raises is the designation of certain countries to be considered ‘safe’ implying that these countries are non-refugee producing countries. Under the new amendments, the minister (an elected political official) would have sole discretion (meaning Kenney is proposing the abandonment of input from any human rights panel of experts that the courts currently rely on) and determination over which countries would be considered ‘safe’ ensuring that people arriving from said countries would be unduly fast tracked through the immigration system and denied any means of appeal. Kenney’s defense of the bill is that, “Canadians want to be generous to real refugees,” and thus, the government needs to have a quicker, streamlined process of deciding whose claims it considers to be real. Yet this sort of mindset and policy creates a discriminatory hearing process in which entire populations of people would essentially be placed on a fast track to deportation because anyone coming from these countries (such as the Roma from eastern Europe) would be considered, in Kenney’s own words, ‘bogus’ refugees and decisions would be based on their country of origin and not the particulars of their case.
In an article from the Vancouver Sun Catherine Dauvergne address the reason why persons of European origin should not be immediately considered safe. The most obvious is that Europe is in fact many countries with unique social dynamics. Dauvergne writes, “Despite the blanket of human rights protections now in place at the European level, access to those rights is uneven.” This means that although Roma live in European countries they do not receive the same access to those protections. Secondly, in 2006 European nations agreed that no citizen of a European nation could be a refugee. “Europe itself has stepped outside of international law and eliminated refugees from within its borders.” Roma fleeing Eastern European countries cannot find refuge in other parts of Europe and are thus forced to think outside the E.U- to places like Canada. And finally, “because Canada is seeking to close a trade deal with Europe, it is politically unthinkable for us to impose greater visa restrictions on all European nationals. So rather than use a high-profile, political way of stemming asylum flows, the new measures take aim at individual countries. This ducks the political cost and instead imposes a human rights cost.”
My experience working as an intern at Romero House, a refugee settlement office in Toronto, has shown me that Roma refugees are hard working, ambitious and courageous- yet also a community struggling through the systemic alienation they have faced their entire lives and continue to face here in Canada. Last year I lived and worked alongside a Roma man who helped me run a food bank program, a mother of five children trying to learn English and learning to drive in Canada, and a family that was always so hospitable- offering me cup after cup of coffee whenever I visited them and always willing to volunteer with me for special events. My experience is only a snapshot of the resiliency and determination of a people to make for themselves and their children a better life- one in which they have access to education, equal job opportunities and a home without violence. Last year Roma were my roommates and continue to be my friends. They are not bogus and they are not pawns in a political game. They are humans and as such deserve to be treated fairly. When it comes to passing new immigration reform, it is important to note that, “no one is asking Canada to do more than it has committed to under inter-national law. But Canada must not do less.” Mary Jo Leddy, the founder of the refugee settlement office I worked at last year sees a different side of this story, the one in which Canadians look back and regret how far we came from justice. She writes, “some day in the future, a prime minister will get up and apologize for the way in which we shut out people whose only crime was that they wanted to live. Apologies, like tears, are not enough.”