Saturday, January 22, 2011



 Roma asylum seekers give up on Canada

By Syed Badiuzzaman, AFP
November 3, 2010 

In recent months, France drew a chorus of international criticism for rounding up hundreds of Roma from illegal camps and sending them back to Romania and Bulgaria.

Unemployed and twice attacked in his native Czech Republic, 50-year-old Ladislav Bledy came to Canada with his family in July 2009 seeking asylum.

Frustrated after 15 months of waiting for his case to be heard by Canada's refugee board, he withdrew his application — along with hundreds of fellow Roma — and is now returning to his homeland to face yet more uncertainty.

"I came to Canada along with my wife and three children for a better life. We all waited here for 15 long months but nothing happened," Bledy said through an interpreter.

"And there is no guarantee that our case will be heard in the near future," he said, adding that he fears more assaults by "neo-Nazi skinheads" upon his return to the Czech Republic.

Some 30,000 Roma live in Canada and 15,000 in Toronto. Currently, 8,000 Roma are awaiting a hearing. They include 4,000 Hungarians, 1,300 Czechs, 500 Slovaks and the rest from Romania and few other countries.

In July 2009, Canada imposed visa requirements for travelers from the Czech Republic, an EU member, after a steep rise in refugee claims, particularly among Roma people. It took similar action against Mexico.

"A large percentage of Roma refugee claimants are withdrawing their claims and going back home," immigration lawyer Max Berger said.

More than 250 of Berger's Czech Roma clients have withdrawn their applications, fed up with endless hearing delays and alleged political interference, and feeling hopeless after seeing other bids rejected.

Canada's acceptance rate of Roma refugees from the Czech Republic topped 80 per cent prior to 2009, but it plummeted to virtually zero following a crackdown on what Ottawa said were abuses of its system.

"I find it hard to believe that the Czech Republic is an island of persecution in Europe," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said last year.

A mid-2009 Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board fact-finding mission to the Czech Republic did not notice any persecution of Roma. Rather it found an increased level of protection for Roma, according to a mission report.

In recent months, France drew a chorus of international criticism for rounding up hundreds of Roma from illegal camps and sending them back to Romania and Bulgaria.

Paul St. Clair, executive director of Roma Community Centre in Toronto, sees similarities between France and Canada as far as the treatment of Roma is concerned.

"Everybody is yelling and screaming at France, but Canada is doing exactly the same thing. The difference is Canada is doing it in a legal and nicer way," St. Clair said.

Berger criticized Kenney's statement and the persecution report for creating a "bias" which has cast what he called a "pall or taint" on the refugee board's decision-making, adversely impacting Roma's asylum bids.

Several immigration lawyers launched a suit in federal court seeking to have their clients' failed asylum bids reheard and for the new panel to be ordered to disregard Kenney's comments to media.

Rocco Galati, another immigration lawyer, echoed Berger, saying Kenney's statement was "political interference with the judicial process of Canada" and "unconstitutional."

A spokesman for the refugee board acknowledged it was dealing with a backlog of cases — currently 53,658 — but denied any government influence on its decisions.

The board "is not a political organization," spokesman Charles Hawkins told AFP. "It has an arm-length relationship with the Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Canadian government.

"Claims are heard on a case by case basis. All refugee claimants are treated in the same manner. They all go through the same process."

Despite the European Union's threat of retaliatory action against Canada unless it lifted the visa requirements, these still remain in place and, according to Kenney's spokesman Alykhan Velshi, have stemmed a tide of "bogus asylum claims" from the Czech Republic.

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