In August 2009 the Toronto Star reported, “Hundreds of people gathered [in Kisleta, Hungary] to pay their respects at the funeral of a 45-year-old woman, the sixth fatal victim in a series of attacks against Gypsies in Hungary. Police say the attacks are linked, may have been committed by the same small group, and that the weapons used in the shooting of Maria Balogh and her 13 year old daughter … had been used in at least two of the previous attacks.”
Many “white” Hungarians consider the Roma—the single largest minority group in Europe—to be “black.” The conditions faced by European Roma are similar to those faced by African-Americans in the US Deep South prior to the freedom marches of the 1960s: they are almost all poor; they live in marginalized communities in substandard housing; and their children attend segregated (and inferior) schools.
As a result, many Hungarian Roma communities tend not to put much emphasis on education—an attitude which in turn feeds the cycle of wretched employment opportunities, poverty, and social disengagement. Ostracized by the larger community, they retreat to extended family loyalties to protect themselves against a society whose rules are stacked against them. Similar attitudes are reported in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In 2011, 4423 European Roma arrived in Canada claiming refugee status because they were unsafe and persecuted in their homelands. They had good reason to want to find new lives in a less hostile environment. Those from Hungary, in particular, had been openly targeted by violent groups of fascist skinheads who publicly demonstrated against them, threatening them in every way, and even murdering individuals or burning family homes. These attacks have continued, with victims finding little sympathy from the general population and negligible protection from the police.
Skinheads who openly idolize Hitler and his regime are not an isolated phenomenon but are part of a larger right-wing movement. The Hungarian Guard, the largest of such groups, is in effect the militia of the Jobbik political party—which holds 47 seats in parliament after winning 17% of the national vote in the 2010 elections. There are strong echoes of the Second World War, when the Axis-aligned dictatorship of Miklós Horthy deported approximately a third of the country’s Roma population to German death camps. We cannot conclude that this horror could not happen again.
The Roma want refuge. Canada briefly provided it when large numbers of Roma began to arrive after 1989, but after Hungary joined the European Union (EU), the Harper government changed its position and took aggressive action to deny refugee status to Roma from EU member states. Canada also deported many Roma who were already here.
The Hungarian Roma have little protection from the racist zealots who find personal and political gain in demonizing them. Yet our government has acted to block the access to Canada of the Roma refugees by defining them as “safe” in their current countries of residence, even though the facts contradict that definition.
Cynthia Levine-Rasky writes of the issue in “Who Are You Calling Bogus?” (Canadian Dimension, September 2012). She points out that then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney first used the term “bogus” in 2009 to describe Roma claimants and has favored it ever since. On February 17, 2012, he was not pleased. “Our government is very disturbed by the recent rise in requests from democratic countries that respect human rights,” he remarked. “The rising number of bogus requests from democratic states of the European Union just makes this problem worse.” This language inspired the Toronto Sun to run a headline: “Feds vow crackdown as Pearson flooded with bogus Hungarian Roma claims.”
Significant members of the Canadian Jewish community have recognized the similarities to the pre-Holocaust era and speak out on behalf of the Roma. They know that anti-semitism in Eastern Europe breeds in the same dark corners that foster anti-Roma hatred. Bernard Rorke writes in Open Democracy (May 2013) of walking through Budapest’s Jewish quarter. “It was difficult not to be chilled by spectres of the past. An English language graffiti scrawl ‘Hate is where the heart is’ caught my attention. Bizarrely, as if on cue, a group of black-clad Magyar Garda types stumbled around the corner, shouting (in Hungarian) ‘Filthy Jews and stinking Gypsies,’ giving raised arm salutes to thugs on the other side of the road who responded with (in Hungarian) ‘God grant us a better future!’.”
The problems the Roma face are well documented by Amnesty International, the UN, and other international bodies. Despite the evidence, Jason Kenney, then Canada’s Minister of Immigration, proceeded to create laws to discriminate against the Roma. Bill C-31 was proclaimed on Dec 15, 2012 and it designates “safe countries” to discourage “bogus refugees,” and determines that Hungary makes the grade. Even before this in December 2011 Kenney had brought his message to Hungary; he appeared on a right-wing media outlet to announce, “Being a refugee is not just about whether they like the state they’re living in or not, and it’s not about whether life is easy there or not, nor is it about occasional acts of discrimination.” Bill 31 was followed up with Canadian-sponsored billboards and other ads in Hungary designed to discourage would be Roma refugees.
The hostility to refugees is pushed further with the removal of their access to basic medical care while in Canada. Jason Kenney managed this, using a Ministerial Order published April 25, 2012. A public protest campaign was started to send 59 cents to Ottawa, the cost per Canadian to keep the Federal Interim Health Program available to refugees. No compassion was extended.
Dov Marmur, Toronto Star columnist and rabbi emeritus at the Holy Blossom Temple, wrote in June 24, 2013, “If there are bogus refugees in Canada, the Roma are not likely to be among them. The latest evidence comes from a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund …. Roma are at great and growing risk in the European countries of their birth. Their rights are being systematically violated through deliberate neglect and persecution. They are not being killed outright, but extreme poverty, social marginalization and countless other forms of discrimination condemn many to a slow death. The Nazis sent Jews and Roma to the same gas chambers. Like Jews, many Roma are Holocaust survivors.”
Marmur notes that Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, is leading the creation of the Jewish Refugee Action Network “to restore Canada’s humanitarian tradition and democratic principles to refugees.” He seeks “multi-faith and multicultural support.”
Yet the Roma remain vulnerable to hostile attitudes: In the Middle Ages there were stories of Jews stealing Christian babies. Although spurious, the myths provided a reason for the majority to fear and hate them as the ultimate other. The same stories have resurfaced in the the past months in Europe, only now it is the Roma who are accused of stealing fair-haired children, as if they thought that such children were better than their own—not a thesis most parents of any ethnic group would endorse. Still, accusations, though subsequently shown to be spurious, receive high-priority press coverage around the world and the Roma are the losers.
“The Roma saga, ‘a story of love and loss’ for city schools,” is the title of the Toronto Star article on the sudden rise and decline of Roma students in Parkdale schools. Roma student numbers jumped from 400 to 2,000 between 2009 and 2012, but fell back to 1,240 by May 2013 as Bill C31 worked its malevolent force. Teachers reported taking on the formidable challenges of this new group with enthusiasm. They were pleased with the results they achieved, only to be saddened by the loss of those who had come to trust them and prepare for a new life in a safer society. Many of the students they loved were forced to return to segregated, second-class schools in a hostile society.
Generally, the Roma keep a low profile in Canada. Despite language barriers and their history of deprivation, many make good use of educational opportunities. However, they are mostly poor and face the usual problems of the poor: unstable employment, bad housing, and isolation from many mainstream activities. Despite their disadvantages they are learning to use collective action and the women in two apartment blocks owned by an obviously slum landlord have taken collective action by refusing to pay rent until some very basic repairs are made.
The Roma have a long history of survival under difficult conditions. In Canada they seem to be reasonably well organized. The Roma Community Centre in Toronto is on top of the larger issues facing their people, does good research and advocacy, writes effective briefs, and finds and brings together volunteer support from the larger community. The Centre supports an excellent website1 that highlights their current activities as well as a record of developments over the years.
The persecution of the Roma is ongoing both in Europe and, alas, here, but with the help of fair-minded people, and a change to a less mean-spirited government, they will survive and thrive.
Ron Shirtliff is an editor of Peace.