Monday, November 2, 2009

Hundreds of Roma seek refuge in Canada

Canada says it has no immediate plans to reinstate visa requirements for Hungarian tourists despite reports of a surge in the number of Hungarian Roma flying in and claiming asylum. “Canada is aware of an increase in refugee claims from Hungary and is monitoring the situation closely,” Canadian Citizenship and Immigration office spokeswoman Kelli Fraser told The Budapest Times last Thursday: “However, Canada has no plans to reimpose a visa requirement at this time.”

New wave

The issue moved off the back burner last week when the Vancouver Sun reported that a “sudden wave of refugee claimants has helped make Hungary Canada’s top source of asylum-seekers, prompting Ottawa to call on Budapest to take action — possibly against organised crime elements.”

In the first three months of this year, 172 Hungarian citizens applied for refugee status in Canada. By the end of June that figure had risen to 750 and the backlog of claims had risen to 940, said Charles Hawkins, senior communications advisor for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Only 288 applications were made in the whole of 2008. However, the number has steadily grown since March last year, when citizens of Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia were granted the right to visit Canada for up to three months without a visa, provided they were not going there to work.

Anger in Czech

Visa-exemption for Czech nationals was revoked last July after a mushrooming in the number of asylum claims made by its Roma citizens, who claimed they were the victims of persecution at home. Angered by the move, the Czech Republic called – in vain – on the European Unionto impose visa restrictions on Canadians travelling to Europe. Brussels has expressed irritation at the policy of Canada and the US to continue to treat EU countries on an individual basis, rather than negotiating reciprocal visa deals with the 27-member bloc as a whole.

Roma unwelcome in Europe

Hungarian Roma, also known as gypsies, are among the most deprived social groups in Hungary, often living in de facto segregation on the edge of rural towns and villages. Nevertheless, despite a well documented level of antipathy towards the Roma minority across Europe, applications for asylum from Roma citizens of the EU’s easternmost member states are regularly turned down by wealthier members. “When an EU citizen seeks asylum in any member state, it is considered a safe country of origin,” the Finnish immigration services said last August after receiving dozens of asylum claims from Bulgarian Roma.

Refugee status granted

Canada, however, granted refugee status to 22 Hungarian citizens – and thus European Union citizens – in 2008, but last week declined to elaborate on the reasons for this. “The IRB does not have statistics on case types and cannot discuss the basis for acceptance of refugee claims,” said Hawkins. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry last Thursday issued a statement saying it had no knowledge of imminent plans by Canada to take action in Hungary’s case. It did, however, urge Hungarian citizens to be aware of the “conditions for legal travel, residence and work” in Canada.

Diplomatic discussions

The issue is clearly being addressed at the highest levels. The Canadian minister responsible for immigration, Jason Kelly, spoke to Hungarian officials about the issue of asylum claims while visiting Hungary in June. A state secretary from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry touched on the subject while in Canada in September. Fraser said Canada had received written assurances from European countries that they will continue to work closely on immigration and law enforcement issues. “Visa-exempt countries are aware that if they do not satisfy the conditions of a visa-exemption, a visa may be imposed,” Fraser said.

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