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International Romani Day: refugees deserves justice and health


Today, April 8th, 2015, is International Romani Day which will be commemorated in many cities across Canada. This day is a chance to celebrate the richness and diversity of Romani cultures1. It is also a chance to raise awareness of human rights atrocities, stereotypes, racism, and cultural scapegoating that have led to centuries of discrimination, persecution, and genocide against Romani people around the world. 

The Council of Canadians continues to stand against the cruel and unusual treatment of refugee claimants, vulnerable non-citizens, and those with precarious immigration status. We are against the xenophobia, racism and outright callousness displayed by the federal government as they  attempt to deny health and social assistance to the most vulnerable newcomers to Canada.

Since 2008, the Canadian government has been referring to ‘bogus refugees’ in their ‘none is too many’ position regarding Roma refugee claimants from Europe. It has been pointed out that, “What is critical about institutional racism is its impact on groups. For refugee claimants, its cumulative effect is a kind of death by policy.” For those Roma who land in Canada they are separated through inclusive exclusion, left homo sacer. This false dichotomy of the ‘bogus’ or ‘fraudulent’ refugee and the ‘good’ refugee is used to, “bolster the rhetoric of the benevolent and welcoming Canadian refugee system trying to cope with ‘fraudulent’ asylum claimants clogging the process.”

Gina Csanyi-Robah, Executive Director of the Canadian Romani Alliance,  recently stated, “ Roma refugees in Canada have faced terrible institutionalized discrimination by the Canadian government and it’s agents such as the Immigration Refugee Board and the Canadian Border Services Agency.  At the same time, they were often subjected to poor legal representation by those that exploited their vulnerable status and lack of knowledge of the Canadian refugee system. For years, everyone who worked at or on behalf of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto tried to raise awareness about these issues. At long last, the truth is continuing to emerge and the stark reality for Romani asylum seekers is becoming wider known in Canada, and internationally. It is shameful that our Canadian government viciously attacked Roma asylum seekers as ‘bogus refugees’, There never was any sincere attempt to address the widely documented human rights abuses and persecution that Europe’s largest minority group has been subjected in States that have allowed endemic discrimination and racially motivated violence to target their Roma communities. In fact, our government has put significant effort into collaborating with these, especially Hungary, in creating campaigns and new policies to prevent Roma from seeking or obtaining asylum in Canada.”

Holocaust – Hedina Tahirovic Sijercic, Lynn Hutchinson Lee (paper, rice paste, block print)  –  Click Here to read ‘Canada Without Shadows: I am a Romani Woman – Kanada Bizo Uchalipe: Me Sem Romni’  a small 24-page book featuring the testimonies and artwork of five Hungarian Romani women in Canada


In the media we see the government’s rhetoric echoed by Ezra Levant where, as Gina Csanyi-Robah, who had filed a criminal hate-speech complaint stated there was, “nearly nine minutes of on-air racist hate-speech targeting our community.  He made racist remarks. He compared us to the Bloods and the Crips, he said the only true Romas were tomatoes, he denied our existence as an ethnic group.”  What followed was what many felt was an insincere apology, it has been further reported that, “police and Crown attorneys were willing to proceed with charges — but that the provincial Attorney-General’s office nixed it. She claims deputy Attorney-General Patrick Monahan said the case would be ‘challenging,’ and that Mr. Levant would turn the proceedings into ‘a bit of a circus’.”  You have to wonder if this was a different group of people would the Attorney-General act differently.

At the same time, you see beer companies in Canada use stereotypes of Roma people to market and sell beer to hipsters. Vancouver’s Parallel 49 Brewing Company markets its ‘Gypsy Tears’ ruby ale with an astounding ignorance.  Worse yet, Ontario and B.C. provincial liquor control boards seem not to find anything problematic about having this on their shelves.  Discrimination to Roma people in Canada comes in many forms and from many places.

Last week a new study came out showing that Hungarian Roma who came to Canada claiming refugee status encountered unfair treatment by lawyers, politicians and government officials. The CBC reports, “The report also cites cases of Refugee Review Board members trading information and using a cookie-cutter approach by ‘copying long passages from reasons denying other Hungarian Romani cases rather than writing unique reasons engaging with the specific circumstances of each case.’”  The Toronto Star reports that, “Three adjudicators — David McBean, Edward Robinson and Michele Pettinella — handled 169 Hungarian claims during the period, all of which were refused.”  Further, the Star highlights, “the conclusion of a new study that identifies ‘institutional bias’ in Canada’s asylum system against members of the often-persecuted minority and finds the result of Roma refugee claims amounts to ‘the luck of the draw’.  And that, “Only 660, or 18.1 per cent, of the claims were granted, compared with 54,290, or 47.2 per cent, from all countries. Among refugee judges who had handled 20 or more Hungarian cases during the period, acceptance rates ranged from 77.8 per cent to zero. Three Toronto-area lawyers represented 1,139 Hungarian cases, accounting for more than a third of the total cases in the five years. The authors say racist stereotypes about the Roma have become “enshrined” in the refugee determination process.

It has also been found in the study that, three of the six highest-volume lawyers involved in Roma cases are currently facing disciplinary proceedings at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Lawyer Viktor Hohots had a 1.2 per cent success rate out of 504 cases; Elizabeth Jaszi, 1.1 per cent out of 80 claims; and Joseph Farkas, 6.7 per cent out of 223. “Supporters of the complainants — most who were denied asylum and been deported — hope Immigration Minister Chris Alexander can reopen their files, given Hohots’ admission. They include a Roma family who sought sanctuary in a Toronto church for three years, hoping their claim would finally be accepted.” This is family which Minister Alexander’s spokesperson, Kevin Menard previously ridiculed by stating, “Seeking refuge in a church, or any other place of worship, to skirt Canada’s fair and generous immigration laws is simply inappropriate and unfair to claimants who follow the rules…Claimants who abide by the law and comply with judicial rulings have more options available to them than those who hide in church basements. Canada has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to those who need it the most.”  So, counter to the government’s claims, many claimants have very genuine reasons to stay as refugees but they have to face systemic discrimination, government interference, kangaroo courts, and incompetent lawyer. Sadly, for too many Roma people like the Pusuma family, they are forced to leave without real justice.

The study suggested these many claimants decided to leave Canada because it was not worth waiting through the lengthy asylum process and some lost hope because of negative comments made by Canadian officials. So, in the face of this hopeless institutional discrimination it is no surprise many people (3600 people since July, 2012 and counting) take the money the Canadian government gives them (over $7.5m) to abandon their refugee claims and return to Europe.



This is at a time numerous international organizations continue to document the ongoing ​ violence and persecution of Roma in Hungary. A new report last month from François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights Harvard School of Public Health highlighted a major concern over anti-Roma extremism in Hungary and discrimination in almost all fields of life: particularly in education, health care, housing, employment, and access to public places and public life. The report discusses formation of paramilitary and vigilante groups who espouse extreme racist ideologies and the organizations’ activities against Roma, including military trainings and racially motivated crimes, violence, and attacks. 

According to a report released by the Council of Europe, the Roma ‘see similarities between much of today’s anti-Roma rhetoric with the language used in the past in Europe by Nazis and fascists and other extremists’.  For reference, during in the Holocaust during the Second World War the Roma population was a part of the mass internment camps in Dusseldorf, Buchenwald, Auschwitz and elsewhere which began in a period known as the Porajmos (the Romany word for ‘the Devouring’). It is estimated that Roma deaths range between 0.5 and 1.5 million, representing 70–80% of their European population.

Even a cursory scan of the news regarding Romani people in Hungary (or for that matter Slovakia) shows an alarming level of racism, violence, and xenophobia. Dafina Savic, director of Roma-rights organization Romanipe, speculates that, “the 2008 economic crisis provoked Hungarian politicians to use the Roma people as a political scapegoat. “There have been various anti-Roma marches organized […] where thousands of people gathered with swastikas, some of them dressed as Hitler, terrorizing Roma villages.”  Further, in Hungary, “the new Orban [government] constitution takes away the power of the Hungarian Constitutional Court to review legislation… this is only the latest nail in the coffin that now holds a moribund Hungarian democracy. The Orban government’s attacks on democracy include: crippling restriction of the freedom of the press, political direction of the Central Bank, inclusion in the Constitution of Christian religious references and of the ‘social utility’ of individuals as a necessary condition for the enforcement of social rights . . .condemnation of homosexuality, criminalization of the homeless, attacks against women’s rights, impunity afforded to perpetrators of racist murders [and] the strengthening of a virulent anti-Semitism…”

The Harvard report also highlights that experts on genocide define the pre-genocidal stage as marked by the “emergence of vigilante groups, increased police brutality, increased military involvement in civil affairs, increased human rights violations and ideological encroachment on judicial decisions.”  While our government states Hungary is a ‘safe country’ and Roma claimants are bogus, the report calls upon the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide act to avoid the dangers that the Roma have been exposed to.


Globally, the UN states that some 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced in 2014 as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations, a 45% increase from 2013 (the highest level since 1992, when refugees were fleeing the Balkan conflicts by the millions).  Yet, Canada continues to rank at the bottom of the world’s top 15 refugee receiving countries, from a high of fifth on the list in the world five years ago; currently Serbia is taking in more refugees than Canada.  At the same time, the Canadian government has purchased billboards and pamphlets in Hungary to discourage immigration of Roma people.

For Roma and other refugees who are Canada, the Conservative government continues to continuing to violate a Federal Court ruling that affirmed the right of refugee claimants in Canada to access health care services. At the same time, Toronto New Democrat MP Andrew Cash filed a written request seeking the total amount spent on legal fees and related costs to date, and documents show $1.4m has already been spent fighting the court’s ruling. A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander offered no justification other than calling the court ruling ‘flawed’. 

While the government continues to play mean spirited games, refugee lives are being lost.  Doctors continue to speak out explaining that, “Rather than treating people on the basis of their medical need, we are asked to treat them based on their legal status and where they were born.” Janet Cleveland recently cited an example of a woman who lost her child due to the amendments. The women was in the process of immigrating to Canada while being sponsored by her husband. Because she had no coverage, she was forced to neglect costly prenatal care. After having a miscarriage, she was stuck with a bill of $40,000 for the 10 day hospital stay she required afterwards… ‘Absolutely preventable and absolutely avoidable, and that kind of thing goes on, unfortunately, not uncommonly’.”  Samir Shaheen-Hussain, a pediatrician, further stated, “Two or three hundred years down the line, assuming humanity survives, people are going to be looking back at this time and saying ‘how could a society, how could a government, ever be pushing this idea?’”


It is time to end this macabre and racist spectacle.  In the meantime, you can do your part letting Minister Chris Alexander know what you think at:

You can also share your concerns with the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration:

The Honourable Chris Alexander, P.C., M.P.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada

Ottawa, Ontario

K1A 1L1

Telephone: 613-995-8042

Fax: 613-996-1289 



“The term Roma is oft en overused and it can homogenize a varied population whose movements have spanned the globe over the centuries. The Roma are not a unified group, and some argue that there are four distinct groups: the Kalderash, Machvaiya, Churaria, and Lovara “who share the Romanes language [but] differ in customs, beliefs, traditional laws and ceremonies.” While there is much dissent about and criticism of the all-encompassing label Roma it has been adopted by many Roma as an identity marker over the other widely used and often derogatory terms such as Gypsy or Czigan


For background on this issue see:

We delivered an open letter to Joe Oliver to demand cuts to refugee assistance are taken out of the omnibus budget

Cruel and Unusual: the Conservatives’ many-sided assault on refugee and migrant health

Harper’s Canada: using omnibus budget bills to deny health & social assistance to refugees

Previous Articles on IHF Cuts