Bigotry Keeps Roma on the Run

By Anna Porter,
The Star, November 5, 2011

Jozsef and Timea live in a sparsely furnished apartment in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park. The central feature of their living room is a pink toy house with white balconies and a few tiny people, none of whom seem to interest the shy 3-year-old who is flicking through a book while watching children’s television. Jozsef used to work for Viktoria Mohacsi, former Hungarian member of the European Union Parliament. Timea worked in the human rights sector. They had a reasonably comfortable life in Budapest. Yet in September 2009 the small family left their home as refugees. They felt they had to escape.

Jozsef tells me about the evening he tried to protect Timea and the baby from four black-clad, bat-wielding thugs who had followed him home from Mohacsi’s offices. “They piled out of a jeep, shouting that they would kill us. They hit me over the head and shoulders. I was on the ground. They grabbed Timea by the hair. They were yelling at her that she was dead. I threw myself over the baby.”

“None of this was totally unexpected,” Jozsef continues. “There had been a lot of threatening phone calls but the ferocity of the attack and my sense of helplessness stunned me.” He knew Mohacsi needed constant protection as the recipient of the 2009 Women of Courage Award “in recognition of her extraordinary contributions in defence of human and civil rights of the Roma community all over Europe.”

Jozsef, Timea and Mohacsi are all Roma. Roma in Hungary, Jozsef says, learn to live with a certain amount of abuse. There is open talk of “gypsy criminals.” One of the parties now in parliament talked of dealing with “gypsy crime” as part of its election platform. The paramilitary Gárda stage marches near Roma areas of the country and, while the government has banned the formal Gárda, its members and followers continue to march.

They show me a documentary report of the latest attacks on Roma in Gyongyospata. What I see are crowds of swaggering men in dark clothes, boots, caps and some Hungarian flags (as a former Hungarian, I particularly resent the use of the flag). They throw rocks through windows, yell through loudspeakers and, as one Roma mother complains, threaten the children on their way to school. The police, Jozsef says, “are not much interested in complaints by Roma.”

The Roma do not fare better in other central European countries. Despite the EU’s 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights, their lot has deteriorated since the end of the Iron Curtain. The EU’s guarantees of dignity, freedoms, equality, justice and solidarity seem not to apply to them.

It is hard to think of dignity among the rats in Kosice’s Roma ghetto. Or of equality when, despite the condemnation by the European Court of Human Rights, the majority of Czech Roma children end up in special schools or classes for the mentally challenged. Until 1990, the Czech government routinely sterilized Romani women. During World War II, the Nazis murdered Roma at designated killing sites — including Auschwitz — and no one kept count of the dead.

In 2009, I wrote about the tragedy in Tatarszentgyorgy, Hungary, after I visited the grieving Csorba parents, whose son and 6-year-old grandson were murdered by black-clad men wielding guns and Molotov cocktails. My writing about this elicited some hate mail from Hungarians who felt I lacked sympathy for people who had to live cheek-by-jowl with gypsies (Roma).

Dislike for Roma runs deep in central European societies. A 1990 Los Angeles Times poll showed that fully 80 per cent of central Europeans view the Roma as the “evil other.”

Generations, whole communities, have been left out of the workforce. Hungarian Roma leader Aladar Horvath told me that Roma life expectancy is about a third shorter than that of their non-Roma fellow citizens.

It is not surprising that Roma families try to flee. Their options, though, are limited. They cannot work in France or Italy without proof of domicile. Locals are unsympathetic. We are now more than halfway through the EU’s Decade of Roma Inclusion, and the situation of the Roma has only worsened.

Most Canadians’ first encounter with Roma comes in the form of warnings about purse-snatchers in Europe. Special areas, such as the Spanish Steps in Rome, the railway station in Madrid and St. Mark’s Square in Venice are highlighted in travel brochures as dangerous for the unsuspecting. The truth is that, while tourists are unlikely to get seriously hurt by a Roma swarming or a child-thief, the danger is enough to colour their notions about fairness and equal rights.

The unasked question is that if the Roma are not allowed to work, how can they feed their children?

During the 1990s, Canada’s acceptance rate for Roma seeking asylum was high. But as the flood of refugees grew during the last decade, the Immigration and Refugee Board toughened its stance. It was only after the restitution of visa requirement for Czechs that Czech numbers plummeted to only 62 applicants in 2010 from 2,210 in 2009.

Possibly, the IRB’s judges are influenced by our government’s position that the Roma are economic refugees and, as such, they should wait their turn among other would-be immigrants.

They used to be successful immigrants. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Romani-Canadian author and academic Ronald Lee, “they came as family groups, travelled West, got land, raised horses.” Later, they started garages, supplying trucks and automobile parts. Many became successful small business owners. “In this multicultural society,” Lee adds, “they have all but disappeared as Roma. They don’t look any different from other Canadians.”

Nowadays, Lee tries to help Romani refugee claimants. It is not an easy task. Most do not speak English and find it difficult to fill out the IRB’s forms. They are unused to our legal system. Some fail to file their personal information forms within the designated 28 days of arrival. If it is not done on time, the person is deemed to have abandoned his or her claim and is liable to be deported. If they do file, they can get a legal aid lawyer, or an overworked paralegal, and hope for a hearing within about 18 months.

They are devastated by the uncertainty. It is difficult to get accurate numbers, but most agree that about 90 per cent of Hungarian Roma withdraw their claims, despite the fact that withdrawal can mean they have to pay their own way home.

Meanwhile, there are 50 to 60 new arrivals at Pearson airport every day. Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina is proud that Hamilton has become home to so many Roma, saying “our city is one of the most accepting places in the country.”

“Most of the Roma I know,” he tells me, “have jobs already.” He is proud of his city’s renowned hospitality, its reasonable accommodation costs and his own instinctive understanding of Roma. As for current issues, the “biggest concern right now is for our Roma team to find a good soccer field.”

In Toronto, most of the refugee claimants end up in the Parkdale area. They are given welfare cheques, legal assistance and the chance to work. If, however, their paycheques are about the same as welfare, they lose the chance for legal aid, and their salaries are taxed by the employers — making their take-home pay less than welfare.

Jozsef and Timea’s IRB hearing was on Feb. 16, 2011. They were not successful. Jozsef tried to tell the judge he had seen terrible things while travelling to Roma areas with Viktoria Mohacsi, that he could not have endured another beating. He wanted the judge to see the Gyongyospata documentary but he felt the judge had already made up his mind.

Their application was rejected on March 19. The chief reason: Hungary is a democracy. Their appeal was turned down in August.

Jozsef still holds onto the hope that his “preremoval risk assessment application” to Canada’s Border Services will keep him safe. I am not so optimistic.

“Gypsies,” Vaclav Havel said, “are a litmus test of civil society.” Let’s see how we do in this regard.