Reprinted with permission from author Alex Langer.
The public discourse surrounding Roma refugees is one full of misconceptions about the Canadian refugee system and the status of Roma, both in their countries of origin and the European Union. Here are four frequently cited myths about the issue, all claimed by Jason Kenney directly in this video, and the actual facts:
Myth: While it is hard for Roma people in Europe, “the Refugee Convention is not there to protect people if they are having a tough time at home”. They do not reach the level of Convention refugees.
The experience of the Roma should definitely be grounds to be included under the 1951 Convention. The convention defines a refugee as someone:
…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country… is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it
The Roma in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all clearly fit under this framework. The Roma are persecuted based on their race on a day-to-day basis. According to a 2012 European Union report, between 70-90% of Eastern and Central European Roma experienced “severe material deprivation” in 2012, while at least half of Roma in most countries surveyed claimed that they had experienced meaningful discrimination in the past twelve months. Schooling is still largely segregated, with Roma children sent to “practical schools” for mentally handicapped children, which provide an extremely poor education and lead to a high rate of leaving school. State protection against issues of discrimination in housing and employment is effectively non-existent. Few Roma even know about the option to report such discrimination, and even fewer actually do it, as they see it as ineffective and thus pointless.
Even more worrying is the increasing tendency towards violence in Hungary, the country producing the most refugees. In Hungary, despite its ban by the Hungarian government, radical nationalist and Neo-Nazi paramilitaries in the “Magyar Guard” roam free, occupying Roma villages and committing violent assaults, arsons, and even murder. Media, including government-linked publications and writers, have called Roma “animals” and claimed that they should not be allowed to exist; the government response for such hate speech was not charges, or even denunciation, but quiet acceptance. In this environment, Roma clearly have a “well-founded fear of persecution” and cannot rely on state protection at all. Just because there is a high baseline level of persecution for Roma does not mean that we should only take those who are being “especially” persecuted; that should describe the whole community.
Myth: The Roma can take refuge in other European Union countries.
The European Union (EU) allows free migration between member states of the Schengen zone for purposes of work and travel. However, this actually precludes individuals from member states from seeking Convention refugee status in other member states. For the Roma, this is incredibly important, as due to a mix of structural racism and a lack of education, it is extremely difficult for most Roma migrants to find the formal-economy work that would classify them as a labour migrant. For those Roma who cannot find work, they drift into dire poverty and often crime, liable to be deported after their time as a visitor has expired, and are unable to collect social benefits, which in the EU are provided by one’s country of citizenship as opposed to country of residence, to prevent “benefit tourism”. This does not stop migration, but makes Canada one of the only destinations where Roma can truly escape persecution, as opposed from bouncing back and forth between their countries of origin and attempted places of asylum.
Myth: The Roma are just here to exploit our welfare system
This meme has been expounded numerous times by our own government, particularly Jason Kenney, the former Minister of Immigration and Citizenship. Despite Kenney’s claims though, Canada’s benefits system is not all that generous, providing only enough money to live well below the poverty line. As most refugee claimants cannot find work, due to their lack of English-language skills, formal education and uncertain future, Roma refugees in Canada are usually found in already marginalized areas like Parkdale in Toronto. As well, welfare and other social services are available in countries of origin where they often provide, adjusted for cost-of-living, more money than Canadian welfare. So, why would Roma people flee Hungary and the Czech Republic for Canada, taking on significant debts for travel expenses with a highly unsure future, to live on less generous welfare benefits? Could it be that they face exceptional discrimination at home?
Myth: The decline in refugee applications from Hungary in 2013 proves that the Roma are “bogus refugees”
This has also been espoused by the federal government, which claims that by restricting the time allowed to construct a bid for asylum as well as access to the appeals process, “welfare tourists” and “bogus refugees” have realized that we are not so welcoming anymore and are staying home. This is one explanation. However, it is entirely likely that the refugees who would normally attempt to come to Canada have been so discouraged by the sharp decline in acceptance rates for Roma refugees and billboards in Hungary telling them to stay away that they have stopped applying even if they have a legitimate refugee claim. People tend not to try what they see as impossible, especially if it costs thousands of dollars in plane tickets to try.
Myths and stereotypes about the Roma are highly pernicious, and affect the public discourse. By debunking falsehoods, we can have a real, open debate about our refugee system. Without the facts, we exclude those who ought to have a right to seek refuge in our country, going against our deeply held values as Canadians. If we fail to have this honest debate based in fact as opposed to myth, we risk losing part of what makes us Canadian.