Canada's Hungarian Roma community is on edge as changes in federal laws may make it much harder for them to successfully claim refugee status in Canada.
With the passage of Bill C-31 in the spring, the government is set to produce a list of countries thought to be safe and unlikely to produce refugees.
Refugee applications from those countries will be processed more quickly, but there will be no opportunity for rejected claimants to appeal. The changes were designed to weed out bogus refugee claims.
But if Immigration Minister Jason Kenney adds Hungary to its list of so-called safe countries, as activists fear he will, it could mean deportation for local Romas, who face rampant discrimination in Hungary.
A Romani man and his family in Coquitlam have already been scheduled for deportation in the coming weeks.
"They don't believe my story. that I was persecuted in Hungary," said the man who would not have his name published for fear of reprisal when he arrives in Budapest.
"I got a threat. I was in a racist neighbourhood. They always told me that I am a Gypsy and that I have to leave the country . They want a clean Hungary, which means no ethnicities like the Gypsies and Jews."
Roma-Hungarians from Coquitlam, Burnaby and New Westminster protested potential deportations outside the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in Vancouver office last Tuesday.
The Coquitlam man had been working in a warehouse and leading a bible study group in New Westminster.
For the first time, they felt safe and had a future to plan for, he said. He had hoped to start his own painting business, but he now faces an uncertain future in Budapest, where there is high unemployment, especially for Roma.
He and his wife were both attacked by racist gangs before they came to Canada in 2009, and things have only gotten worse, as hatred of Roma is on the rise, he claims.
"I really don't understand why [the government] doesn't see what's happening now in Hungary. The country is not a safe country," he said. The decision to screen out Roma refugees is likely based on old racist stereotypes, he added.
"Not all Gypsies are criminals, as the say. Those people are my friends and my family members here in Canada. They are working very hard."
The Coquitlam deportee's fears are justified, according to Shayna Plaut, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia studying Roma issues.
"There's an increasing xenophobia in Hungary," Plaut said. "Hungary [was] an almost model country in transition going from socialism to democracy. It is now singled out as a country that is sliding back into fascism at an alarming rate."
In Hungary, Roma are systematically denied work and often forced onto government assistance, which often means being sent to government labour camps, Plaut said.
Gypsies, as they are known in Hungary, are also targeted for violence by paramilitary groups that are offshoots of right-wing political parties, and local police are often complicit in their investigations, Plaut added. In 2008 and 2009, 48 Roma were killed in more rural areas of Hungary.
"If you look, in 2008 and 2009, there's a rise in refugee claimants in Canada," Plaut said.
As for why things are getting worse, Plaut said it is tied to a bad economy that has yet to recover from the 2008 crash.
"When you have economic problems, society will tend to look for the enemy, and look for the enemy within. We've seen a long history of that," she said.
Kenney’s office released a statement to the NOW after press deadline:
“We are concerned by the rising number of asylum claims being made in Canada by citizens of European Union (EU) Member States. It is difficult to comprehend that EU countries – which are such strong advocates for human rights – should represent a top source region for asylum claims made in Canada,” said Rejean Cantlon, Kenney’s spokesperson. “The vast majority of all asylum claims from the EU are abandoned, withdrawn or rejected. Canada receives more asylum claims from the EU than from Africa or Asia. Canada’s top source country for asylum claims is Hungary.”
She added that Hungary has not been pre-emptively added to the list.
“No decisions have been made concerning which countries will appear on the Designated Country of Origin (DCO) list. The determination of DCOs will be based on objective quantitative and qualitative criteria. This includes the number of claims that are abandoned and withdrawn by the claimants themselves. The designations will facilitate faster processing of asylum claims from countries that respect human rights and offer state protection,” she said.