Canada blocks Roma refugees, visa tensions threaten CETA

Roma refugees fleeing oppression in Romania stopped by border police in Europe. Photo by Reuters.

The Canadian government's requirement of a visa for travellers from Romania and Bulgaria has put a strain on the ratification of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

This morning the Globe and Mail reports, "Canada’s continued insistence that Bulgarians and Romanians need visas to visit this country could block key parts of the Canada-Europe free-trade agreement from coming into force, [European Parliament President Martin Schulz] warned Wednesday [May 18]. ...Canada imposed visa requirements on several countries in 2009 after a spike in what it the Conservative government under Stephen Harper said were bogus refugee claims. Bulgarians and Romanians are the only EU member countries that require visas to come to Canada."

Why does Canada insist on these visas?

In September 2014, Maclean's reported, "Canada imposed the visa on the two countries as well as the Czech Republic to stop an influx of bogus refugee claimants among ethnic Roma applicants. The Czech visa requirement ended last year, but Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said at the time the Romanian and Bulgarian ones would remain because of continued concerns over human smuggling and organized criminal gangs."

And in April 2012, the Globe and Mail noted, "The Harper government has insisted it can solve the visa dispute with refugee reforms that would fast-track refugee claimants from countries deemed safe, so that those who are refused are quickly returned. That way, the visa restrictions could be quickly lifted."

That "refugee reform" was C-31. The "safe country of origin" provision of C-31 allows the Minister of Immigration to designate some countries, especially those in the European Union, as safe and thereby deny asylum seekers from those countries. The legislation also means that rejected refugee claimants from countries on the safe country list are no longer able to appeal the decision to the Immigration and Refugee Board. In other words, the legislation allows Roma to be quickly processed and deported back to their "safe" countries in Europe. C-31 received Royal Assent in June 2012.

And yet, even after the passage of this legislation, the September 2014 Maclean's article noted, "John Manley, head of the influential Canadian Council of Chief Executives, [says] more needs to be done at European airports to block bogus refugee claimants from actually boarding flights for Canada. This could including closer tracking of travel documents used to board airliners, Manley said in an interview. 'We can’t lift the visa until we find other ways to avoid this influx of refugee claimants.'"

But why would Roma refugees be fleeing Romania and Bulgaria?

In March 2012, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg stated, "In many European countries Roma and Travellers are still denied basic human rights and suffer blatant racism. They remain far behind others in education, employment, access to decent housing and health. Their average life span is shorter and infant mortality rates are higher compared to other groups."

In its 2015/16 report on Romania, Amnesty International writes, "Roma continued to face systemic discrimination and were targeted with hate crimes, including excessive use of force by law enforcement officials. Anti-Roma sentiment continued to be frequently expressed in public and political discourse." And in this year's annual report on Bulgaria, Amnesty International highlights, "Authorities continued to forcibly evict Romani communities from informal settlements. Some were relocated to inadequate housing, while others were rendered homeless."

As such, it would appear that Canada is closing its borders to peoples suffering discrimination and oppression in Bulgaria and Romania by imposing visa requirements (along with the continued implementation of C-31). And in doing so, it is putting at risk the ratification of CETA by the Bulgarian and Romanian legislatures given their resentment that the visa restrictions apply to all Bulgarians and Romanians.

How will this be "resolved"?

Today's Globe and Mail notes, "[The European Parliament president] said he is optimistic the visa dispute can be resolved soon, adding that European officials will be watching closely how Canada resolves a similar dispute with Mexico. The Canadian government is considering lifting visa requirements on Mexico before a planned visit to Ottawa in June by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Ottawa is apparently ready to waive the visa rule in exchange for Mexico agreeing to share more information about travellers before they land in Canada."

What might this result in?

In October 2015, the CBC reported, "Canada-bound Hungarians with valid travel documents have been interrogated at Budapest's international airport and denied permission to travel by unidentified officials dozens of times in recent months." Those pulled out of the line have been asked, "Are you Roma?" The CBC article adds, "The airline [Air Transat] said Canadian officials have recently been present in Budapest to screen passengers about the purpose of their planned trips to Canada. ...[Canada Border Services Agency] spokesperson Line Guibert-Wolff [says] the CBSA has 'liaison officers' who help airlines ensure passengers are properly documented."

This seems to be in line with what John Manley and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives have called for.

The Council of Canadians rejects CETA in that it gives more power to transnational corporations, while resulting in further restrictions on the movement and freedom of oppressed peoples.