Saturday, June 13, 2009


Czech Roma seek safe haven - GTA - Czech Roma seek safe haven

Shelters jammed as asylum-seekers fleeing neo-Nazi persecution pour into southern Ontario

June 12, 2009
Lesley Ciarula Taylor
Immigration Reporter

The Salvation Army in Peel is feeding nearly 100 Roma immigrants in shifts because its shelters are jammed, just one sign of an explosion of Czech Roma asylum-seekers to Ontario this year.

From January to April, 1,077 Czech Roma poured into Toronto, Peel Region and Hamilton to get away from neo-Nazi firebombings and beatings. Last year in total, there were 853 Czech Roma refugee claimants.

Among the most recent is high-profile journalist Anna Polakova, 46, and six relatives including her son, Marek, who she says was badly beaten by skinheads.

"I believe it would have been naive to risk further attacks ... being aware that one is risking the life of one's children or someone else in the family. Just consider that during the past 20 years, more than 30 Roma have died this way," Polakova wrote Sunday on the Czech Roma website

Peel and Toronto officials are sitting down this week with Queen's Park and Ottawa to talk about resources to handle the influx, said Sue Ritchie, manager of the Peel shelter program.

"We're at overflow since this started" in February, said Joann Lameck, executive director of the Salvation Army's Peel Region Emergency Residential Shelter program.

Roma families of up to 14 have crammed two shelters and two hotels for months, requiring that two or three sittings be held for dinner each day. Peel had been turning them away for several weeks before reopening its doors two weeks ago.

"The staff are getting burned out, but there's no major crisis," Lameck said.

Toronto shelters are handling a surge in Roma as well, said Pat Anderson, manager of Partnership Development. "Our system is flexible. We can depend on motel contracts."

The numbers have been rising since Canada lifted its visa requirement for Czech travellers in November 2007. In April, a 22-month-old girl in Vitkov, Czech Republic, was badly burned in one of three firebombings of Roma houses. On May 3, the 250,000-strong Czech Roma community organized its first ever national protest rally against neo-Nazi attacks.

"The situation in the Czech Republic is getting progressively worse," said Paul St. Clair, executive director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto. "These are the people who can afford to sell something and come. There are more Roma in Hungary or Slovakia facing the same thing, but they are poorer."

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was quoted recently as saying, "It's hard to believe that the Czech Republic is an island of persecution in Europe." A spokesman said this week the government "is monitoring the increase quite closely."

While many Roma withdraw their claims, so far 75 per cent of those who applied got refugee status this year and 95 per cent last year, he said. Meanwhile, none who arrived since April, when 404 Roma claimants landed in southern Ontario, have had refugee hearings scheduled.

The Immigration and Refugee Board sent researchers to the Czech Republic in March to investigate, but their report has not been released.

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