Spotlight on Hungary: Bill C-31 and the Discrimination of Roma

After working on my Masters in Budapest for the last 18 months, I finally returned to Canada. Upon my return, I began to hear about the overwhelming number of Roma refugees seeking asylum in Canada. To be honest I was not surprised that Roma are fleeing Hungary but I am surprised about the kind of reception these individuals received from the Harper government. During my time in Budapest, I spoke highly of Canada because of our tolerance, diversity and acceptance of all ethnic groups. Coming back here,  I am disappointed to find out  that Roma have become an exception to our policy of tolerance.

I keep hearing that our welfare system is the real reasons Roma have picked Canada and that these people are not really in any sort of danger.  To prevent such abuses, the Conservatives have adopted a new law to protect our immigration system. Observing the situation of the Roma population during my time in Hungary I have to say that the Conservative government cannot be more wrong about the Roma asylum seekers and having an opportunity to live in Hungary, I want to share with the Canadian public what I have witnessed during my stay. Before I do that it is important to explain the latest developments in our immigration law.

Earlier this year Bill C-31 was adopted to prevent abuse to Canada’s refugee system. The new law makes it easier for the Canadian government to turn back asylum seekers without really giving a second thought to their personal situation.

According to Jason Kenney, Bill C-31 aims to prevent abuse of our welfare system by identifying “bogus refugee” claims. This is not to say that bogus claims don’t exist but the fact that Immigration and Refugee Board has to take into consideration what country the refugee comes from makes it more difficult for asylum seekers from specific countries to be granted refugee status.   To clarify, the new law allows immigration minister Jason Kenney to place certain countries on the “Designated countries of origin” (DCO) list. DCOs are defined as countries that have a good human rights record, offer state protection and do not usually produce refugees. That means asylum claims from DOC countries will be processed faster and individuals do not have a right to an appeal upon rejection even on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. As of December 15th, 27 countries have been categorized as DOCs by Kenney. To no surprise Hungary is on the list.

I am still puzzled by Kenney’s decision to include Hungary on this list. I understand that the Harper government is against immigration but this is blatant discrimination. Since 2010, it has been reported that over 4,000 refugee claims came from Hungary and most were from Roma. Knowing this it seems to me that Bill C-31 is designated to prevent certain minority groups such as the Roma from immigrating to Canada. I guess it is easier to categorize Roma as opportunists than actually an at risk group throughout Europe.

Living in Budapest for a year, I witnessed the treatment of Roma by the Hungarian population and from what I have seen and heard, Kenney’s  perception regarding the treatment of Roma in Hungary is way off.  More upsetting is the fact that Kenney visited a town of Miskolc – one of many highly-Roma populated regions. As CBC reports, Kenney saw first-hand what kind of poverty these people lived in. Further he was able to speak to Roma about their experiences with discrimination. According to his decision to include Hungary as a DCO, he choose to ignore what he has seen and heard.

For many foreigners it becomes way too easy to ignore the issues of a country that it is not your own. For me, this was difficult. It is probably because I chose to study Human Rights. When I arrived in Budapest, I was under the impression that this was a multicultural and tolerant city because I was attending an American university with 95% of students and faculty coming from other countries. Plus, I was very happy to see that there were Middle Eastern, African and Asian communities.  I also noticed a predominant Roma population but I was not aware of the discrimination against them. Speaking to locals they seemed very accepting of my lack of knowledge of Hungarian however one thing that I found interesting was their reaction when I told them I am studying human rights. Usually this followed with three questions: “human rights? here in Hungary? Why?” and a chuckle.

About a month into my stay I was made aware about a new radical nationalist party – Jobbik. This party is the official opposition in the Hungarian parliament  and holds a seat in the EU parliament. More amusing is the fact that their EU MP is a human rights lawyer who is anti-Semitic and anti-Roma. They also have their own military dubbed the ‘Hungarian Guard’ which serves to “protect” the Hungarian values and interests. The more students and professors I spoke with the more it seemed like this was a fascist, antisemitic, anti-Roma and Homophobic party.

Over the course of my stay in Budapest I began to see this party everywhere I went. At every Metro station they had a booth promoting their party and every other weekend they would have public demonstrations. They were hard to miss since the Hungarian Guard had an authentic uniform. As foreign students, especially visible minorities we were told to avoid places where they planned to hold their demonstrations.

For Roma, many live in constant fear because the media and politicians portray this ethnic group as dirty, lazy criminals. For many it is difficult to find a job because of the stereotypes that have been instilled in the society. As a result many are homeless and resort to pan handling. In one instant when I was at a restaurant in a busy part of town, an elderly Roma woman was walking by the restaurant and she was begging tourist for money. Even though she was not approaching customers from the restaurant, the waiter serving me took it upon himself to yell at her and hit her for “disturbing” tourists on the street near his restaurant. Most onlookers avoided the situation and at that time I did not see this as a hate crime. The truth of the matter is, this was a hate crime.

I felt horrible for not standing up for this woman but being the alone in a new city, I wasn’t confident that I could make any impact. As the months went by I began to see how Roma were really treated. Although it was less visible in the city, every time I opened the newspaper there would be stories known as “gypsy crimes.” The stereotypes were so instilled in the locals that they only see Roma as the thieves, crooks and criminals.  Twenty minutes from Budapest, the discrimination is ever worse. In smaller towns Roma are segregated. In many towns their children are not allowed to go to school with Hungarian children. Roma children are segregated and usually the infrastructure of the schools are in poor conditions.

Along with discrimination, I have heard of numerous hate crimes. While I was living in Budapest, I heard of two instances where houses of Roma were burned down, with people inside.  Other incidents include physical assaults and brutal attacks against Roma. In all the cases, this was not treated as a hate crime.

In six towns, the mayors are part of the Jobbik party. The situation is only getting worse for Roma and most fear for their lives. The fact that I witnessed the hostility from the locals towards Roma is unsettling. It upsets me to know that these people are being targeted and even Canada is making it difficult for them to seek safety. Hungary of all countries does not deserve to be on the DCO list. Hungary may pretend to be a democratic country but along with the growing popularity of Jobbik the hate for Roma, Jews and the LGBTQ community is growing. Hungary is on a dangerous path and the fact that Canada is turning the other cheek only encourages the hatred and discrimination.

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