Why the Roma are fleeing Hungary and why Canada is shunning them
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GYONGYOSPATA, HUNGARY—They called themselves a neighbourhood watch.
On March 1, 2011, at least 2,000 members of a right-wing paramilitary group called the Civil Guard Association for a Better Future rolled into this sleepy former coal-mining village 80 kilometres east of Budapest.
Wearing black uniforms and hats, they pledged to help police maintain law and order and stamp out “Gypsy criminality.”
About 450 of Gyongyospata’s 2,800 residents are Roma, members of a nomadic tribe believed to have immigrated to Europe from northern India perhaps a thousand years ago. With their dark skin and cloistered culture, Roma have struggled to fit in across the continent.
The paramilitary members lingered in front of Roma homes in Gyongyospata with snarling dogs, lit torches and whips. They waved red and white flags similar to those flown by the Arrow Cross Party — Nazi sympathizers — during World War II.
“Dirty Gypsies! We should exterminate all the Roma and their children,” one paramilitary member screamed in a scene that was captured on mobile phone video and later showed to a visitor.
Perhaps more remarkable than the outpouring of hate was the reaction of police and the Hungarian government — silence. The activists who tracked the event say the paramilitaries were ignored by authorities for more than a month. The government said nothing.
Another paramilitary group called Vedero arrived in mid-April, its members wearing camouflage fatigues and red berets. It promised to set up a training camp a stone’s throw from a row of Roma homes. Vedero’s leaders invited Hungarian teens to show up with pellet guns and boxing gloves.
“We were terrified,” says Janos Berki, 42, a Roma and father of four who has lived in Gyongyospata his whole life. “The paramilitaries followed us when we took our kids to school, screaming at us and threatening us. It got so bad that we sent the kids away to stay with relatives in another village.”
On April 22, after nearly two months of inaction by police, the Hungarian Red Cross arrived with six buses and evacuated 277 Roma women and children.
Even as Hungary’s government promised to ban uniformed marches by paramilitary groups, government spokesman Peter Szijjarto was quoted in media reports calling reports of an evacuation “a bald-faced lie.” Zoltan Balog, a justice ministry official, said the Roma were on “a scheduled holiday” for Easter.
Who are the Roma? A nonprofit organization called the National Democratic Institute aims to shed light on the 10 million Roma living in Europe.
Gyongyospata is not an isolated case. In August, paramilitary groups descended on the towns of Cegled and Devecser, where they threw rocks and cement blocks through the windows of Roma homes.
Back in Gyongyospata, a Roma home was firebombed in March. Two young Roma men were attacked in July while walking home from a family gathering.
“The (paramilitaries) have never left,” said Berki’s wife Aniko. “They follow me when I’m in the streets with my 2-year-old and tell me they are going to cut my throat.”
If he could afford it, Berki would come to Canada. .
But Canada’s government doesn’t believe the vast majority of Hungarian Roma are in imminent danger.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said most Roma travel to Canada to exploit social programs, including welfare, subsidized public housing, health care, the low-income tax rebate and the child-tax benefit. When they’re done taking advantage, the Roma return to Hungary, he said.
“It’s naive to say we haven’t created a pull factor by having all these benefits,” Kenney said in an interview, though he couldn’t put a specific cash value on the buffet of benefits.
In 2011, 4,427 of 24,416 new Canadian refugee cases were from Hungary, up from 2,300 a year earlier, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board. More claimants now come to Canada from Hungary than any other country.
Those numbers are about shrink.
Under the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which passed in 2010, Kenney’s ministry has been working on a so-called safe list, officially known as a designated country of origin list. Asylum seekers from countries on the list — which would include the U.S. and U.K., as well as Hungary and other nations that haven’t historically produced large numbers of refugees — would see their refugee claims rushed through the system within weeks. Kenney is expected to unveil the list of safe countries this fall.
Would-be refugees from those countries would have only 15 days to file a personal information form outlining their claim instead of the current 30 days. And they would have to prepare for a hearing in 30 days, instead of the several months they now have.
“It’s setting people up for failure right from the get-go,” says Gina Csanyi-Robah, head of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto.
“There’s just no way. . . you can get supporting documentation like medical and police reports in that time. You have to order these from these countries. Try to get it from the U.S. and it’ll take you more than six weeks. Now you want it in less than 15 days from Hungary? Come on. Do you think these people are going to get any co-operation from Hungary, where people say Roma are giving their country a bad name?”
Human-rights lawyers and advocates say Kenney’s proposed changes will create a two-tiered asylum system. They say Kenney is responding to public sentiments after a handful of recent high-profile criminal cases stained the reputation of the 40,000 Roma who now live in Canada.
In April, Ferenc Domotor, a Roma from Papa, Hungary, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in connection with Canada’s largest-ever human trafficking ring. Domotor and his family and friends conspired to bring as many as 19 people from Hungary and forced them to claim refugee status, apply for welfare and work construction jobs from dawn until dusk, surviving on table scraps. The sensational case resulted in the arrest of seven Hungarian-Canadian Roma.
In September, Durham police announced they had smashed a “Roma crime ring,” arresting 34 people, many of whom had been similarly recruited and guided through the process of claiming refugee status.
“The truth is that there are professional Roma,” Csanyi-Robah said. “There are some people who because of their circumstances have learned to live in a deviant way. The same way there are Roma who are engineers, teachers and lawyers and journalists, there are also some who steal.”
Peter Showler , chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board from 1999 to 2002, says the influx of Roma into Canada reminds him of the early 1990s when Russian Jews were arriving by the thousands.
“Many Jews couldn’t find employment (in Russia), were spit on in the streets and had problems with access to education. Even though some Jews were well-to-do and living in Moscow, you still had a large number accepted as refugees in Canada from 1993 to 1995.
“Persecution is an animal with 1,000 faces,” added Showler, who now teaches law at the University of Ottawa. “It can be when there is cumulative persecution, when there’s so much on the plate at one time but each instance isn’t enough on its own.”
Showler said the IRB accepts that a refugee applicant is persecuted if they are “unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution. The fear part is subjective and the well-founded part is objective. In other words, your fear may be genuine but there needs to be some objective basis.”
While the Canadian government says the vast majority of Roma refugee claims are withdrawn, abandoned or rejected, 18.7 per cent of cases that made it to a hearing last year were approved. Of the 1,990 cases finalized in 2011 involving Hungarian refugee claimants — the Canadian government doesn’t distinguish between Roma and non-Roma Hungarian claimants — 848 were withdrawn, 256 were abandoned, 720 were rejected and 166 were approved.
“Hungary, like almost all countries, has a constitution that guarantees protection but the question is how it works on the ground,” Showler said. “The police there just don’t give protection.”
There were only 24 refugee claims from Hungary in 2007, but that number began to climb the following year after Canada yielded to pressure from the European Union to end visa requirements for new EU countries. Hungary joined the EU in 2004.
Canada began to require visas from those traveling from the Czech Republic (a non-EU country) in 2009 after 95 Czech Roma landed at Pearson International Airport claiming refugee status.
But Canada is currently negotiating a free-trade agreement with the EU, which diplomats and economists say would probably collapse if Canada introduced a visa program for Hungarians.
Kenney has said Hungarian Roma ought to consider moving to other countries if they feel endangered. For instance, he says Roma have freedom of movement within the European Union.
“Kenney makes completely false statements here,” Showler said. “The truth is that as a citizen of an EU country, Roma have temporary residence rights for three months. They have the right to seek employment. But in most other European countries they face the same discrimination and backlash that they do in Hungary.”
That leaves countries such as Australia, the U.S. and Canada. Australia is more than twice as far and expensive to travel to from Hungary. The U.S. requires pre-approval from the Department of Homeland Security for travelers who fly without a visa. That helps make Canada a preferred destination for Hungarian refugee claimants.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Hungary thrived through the 1990s. Foreign investment poured in. By the end of 2001, every second Hungarian owned a cell phone, making it one of Europe’s fastest-growing mobile markets.
Most Roma, however, did not share in the good fortune. Roma struggled after the Soviet industries began to close, putting them out of work. Some even pined for the days of communism.
Then, in 2008, Hungary, like many of its neighbours, plunged into recession. Its national airline collapsed, social programs were cut and taxes were raised. In 2010, the government took $14.6 billion from the pension plans of Hungarian companies to pay down its debt.
As voter anguish grew, the right-of-centre Fidesz Party promised to rekindle the economy and repair the reputation of Hungary’s parliament, which was tarnished after former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted in a secretly taped speech that his governing Socialist Party had misled voters before the 2006 elections by saying there was no need for austerity measures. “We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening,” Gyurcsany said on the leaked recording.
After Gyurcsany resigned in 2009, Fidesz needed another common enemy to blame for their country’s struggles. They seized on the Roma.
On Feb. 10, 2009, Fidesz released a statement that claimed: “The number of serious crimes committed by people of Gypsy origin is rising at an alarming pace. We demand that the government, instead of finding excuses based on the origins of the perpetrators, find the perpetrators and protect the rights and interests of the victim.”
In April 2010, against a backdrop of economic desperation, Hungarians elected Fidesz, which took 53 per cent of the popular vote. The Jobbik Party, even more right wing, won 17 per cent.
Fidesz has bolstered its popularity by stoking nationalism. Hungary’s national broadcaster, for example, uses the outdated map of the enlarged Hungarian kingdom for national weather forecasts. (Both Fidesz and Jobbik have seized on the Treaty of Trianon, signed following World War I. Land that once belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary was handed to countries such as Austria, Romania and Slovakia. Hungary’s geographic footprint fell by two-thirds.)
In some villages, Fidesz has paid for the construction of statues and plaques honouring Miklos Horthy, a Hungarian regent who ruled between 1920 and 1944. Horthy’s supporters say he helped foster a period of economic progress and battled to keep Hungary out of the grip of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
But Horthy also passed anti-Jewish laws, including one 1941 statute that banned sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews. Horthy also deported more than 500,000 Jews and Roma to Auschwitz.
Jobbik was founded by a former high-school teacher named Gabor Vona in 2003. Its influence has steadily increased over the past two years while it has attacked the Roma.
In a recent Jobbik television ad, a mosquito buzzes as an actor’s voice declares that Jobbik knows how best to “deal with the Roma problem.” Then a hand crushes the pest.
Sandor Szoke, a human rights advocate in Budapest, said both Fidesz and Jobbik are “like the Romans, where if (they) can’t give bread, (they) give a circus. Instead of bread, the spectacle has been nationalism and a spirit of anti-Roma. They want people to believe they are victims and the Roma are one of the biggest groups who are hurting the country.
“The government has run on a campaign of law and order. But it’s double talk,” he said. “What they mean when they say they will crack down on crime is they will look after the Gypsy problem. When they say law, they mean we will finally have our paramilitaries, and when they say order, they mean they won’t support Gypsies financially.”
In February 2009, for instance, Albert Pasztor, the police chief in the eastern Hungarian city of Miskolc, said at a news conference that all of the burglaries in the city of 180,000 during the previous two months had been committed by Roma. While Pasztor was immediately fired, he was reinstated after 1,500 street protestors supported him, the state-run news agency MTI reported.
For the Hungarian government, the most notorious case involves four alleged serial killers who are on trial over the deaths of six Roma from November 2008 to August 2009.
Prosecutors said Zsolt Peto, Istvan Csontos and brothers Arpad and Istvan Kiss used shotguns, a hunting rifle and fire bombs to target Roma communities. The four saw themselves as vigilantes and wanted to provoke Roma into acts of reprisal after their attacks, prosecutors said.
Six Roma, including a young father and his 5-year-old son, died. Ten others were seriously wounded.
Police initially downplayed the deaths, saying several victims did not die of gunshot wounds, but were fatally injured by nails when the roofs of their homes collapsed, said Kristof Domina, director of the Athena Institute, a Budapest organization that documents hate crimes in Hungary.
“It was only after attention from international NGOs and foreign governments that they started to investigate properly,” Domina said.
After one investigator destroyed footprints and the imprint on the ground of a fallen body by urinating on them, a city police chief shrugged it off.
“He said if the guy had to go, what are you going to do?” said Balazs Turay, a freelance journalist in Budapest who has covered the 17-month trial.
As outside pressure mounted, the Hungarian government asked the FBI to help with the investigation.
The case has been turned into a movie called Just the Wind that Hungary has put forward as its Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language picture. An Oscar win for the fictionalized account of the killings would surely highlight the Roma’s problems.
Just the Wind
But when the movie premiered at the Berlin Film festival in December (it was also featured this year in the Toronto International Film Festival) the Hungarian Embassy placed leaflets on seats before the screening. The leaflets, a copy of which was obtained by the Star, say that, while the government helped finance the movie, viewers should understand it is fiction and doesn’t reflect the current plight of Roma in Hungary.
The leaflets also pointed out that Hungary is not the only European country battling extremism.
“Unfortunately we can also point to a string of attacks in Europe over the last two years when attacks and murders took place for racist or ideological reasons,” the letter said. It cited the example of Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik and the execution-style killings in Germany of nine shop owners, eight of them of Turkish descent and one Greek, between 2000 and 2006.
In Gyongyospata , fields of sunflower, grapevines and wheat are yet to be harvested but Berki is already worried about the coming months. His home is a rundown shanty that channels stifling heat in the summer and teeth-rattling gusts in winter.
Although he is a trained electrician, Berki can’t find a job. He receives about $175 a month from a local workfare program, digging trenches for water pipes, trimming bushes and repairing roads and sidewalks.
His entire monthly wage helps pay down a bank loan he took out in 2010 when a flood destroyed his home, which is made from a mixture of clay loam and straw.
Six months ago, his electricity and gas supply were cut because of unpaid bills. His family subsists on the $40 a month his wife receives in child support from the government
“Even by Gypsy standards, we are very poor,” Berki said, towel drying his 2-year-old daughter Rebecca’s hair after her bath in a tiny plastic wash basin.
Visiting with Berki, it is hard to reconcile Kenney’s claim Hungarian Roma are able to cobble together enough money to travel to Canada to take advantage of the welfare system. “You can get a ticket from Europe to Canada for less than $1,000,” Kenney noted.
“In my life I will not make that much money,” Berki said.
From Berki’s home, it is only a few feet to the pine bushes that encircle his neighbour Kristina’s house. Kristina, a 32-year-old ethnic Hungarian who declined to give her last name, said she has built up the shrubs because her vegetables and chickens kept being stolen.
“We should put (the Roma) on a train and send them away,” Kristina said, her 3-year-old daughter running underfoot. “They are watching us and waiting.”
After last year’s confrontation and evacuation in Gyongyospata, some paramilitary members were arrested, charged with failing to produce identification and causing a public disturbance. All were released two days later, said Dorottya Atol, a Hungary analyst with Amnesty International.
“The government was reckless. Saying and doing nothing for more than a month, allowing this to go on was dangerous,” Atol said. “It shows the state is not interested in giving people the personal protections they are entitled to.”
Janos Farkas agrees.
Farkas is head of the local Roma community council. Like Berki, the 30-year-old digs trenches for Gyongyospata’s workfare program.
“We’ve tried to fit in and work with the community,” Farkas said, showing a section of his roof that was repaired after it was hit with a Molotov cocktail in March. “Police were looking for five or six Roma who were illegally cutting down timber in the forest last winter and we helped catch them. They’re in jail now for two or three years, and after that, we proposed participating in the civilian guard but were refused.”
Farkas pointed to a house down the road where two brothers, 22 and 20, live. On June 16, the pair were attacked on the street by Garda. While they suffered broken bones and needed stitches, both refused to file a complaint with police or discuss the incident with reporters.
“They think ‘What’s the point? It’s a waste of time,’” Farkas said.
As bad as things are for Roma in Hungary, he understands why some would-be refugees return, abandoning their asylum claim.
“You’ve never been anywhere, lived anywhere, but the street where you were born and it’s all you know, even if it is dangerous,” Farkas says.
“We think of Canada as this amazing place of acceptance, but when we get there we really aren’t accepted there either. There’s this illusion of Canada. Say that you are Gypsy and all people think of is thieves on the streets of France, not our amazing musicians and craftsmen.”
Farkas walked by a telephone pole fixed with a closed-circuit camera high overhead.
“When my home was firebombed and when the boys were attacked, the police said the cameras did not work,” he said. “They don’t want you to see, they don’t want anyone to see what is happening here in Hungary.”
There are some Hungarians who do sympathize with the Roma.
Several political parties, including Hungary’s Socialist Party and a liberal party called LMP, or Politics can be Different, routinely support the Roma. A large activist movement known as the Milla has organized rallies against racism.
But the United Nations High Commission on Refugees says living conditions for Roma in Hungary are significantly worse than for the rest of the population. Roma unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent, 10 times the national average. Just 3 per cent of Roma attend high school because most fail to learn basic literacy in their formative years.
“This is supposed to be a European Union country but travel to any Roma community and you will see people living in poverty like in sub-Saharan Africa and racial attacks with no one brought to justice,” said Lydia Gall, a Human Rights Watch researcher who studies Central Europe.
Fidesz has allowed communities to establish publicly funded segregated schools after white families pulled their children out of racially integrated classes, a practice known as “white flight,” said Vera Messing, a sociologist in Budapest.
Judit Pach, head of communications for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, responded by saying Messing was “trying to create a bad image for the whole country.”
“The right to choose a school freely is the basic right of every citizen, irrespective of their ethnicity,” Pach said. “This is one of the important achievements of the democratic Hungary.”
Yet in Gyongyospata, Roma children attend classes on the first floor of the local school while ethnic Hungarian children are taught on the second. Roma students are not given access to English or swimming lessons or computers and are excluded from after-school sports and arts programs, several local Roma families said.
In some communities, hospitals have separate maternity wards, according to the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest. In a recent study of 131 Roma women, 44 said they were confined to a “Gypsy room” after giving birth. Several women said they had to clean the room themselves. One doctor in Miskolc interviewed by the NGO said segregation helps the Roma women “because they are spared abusive attitudes.”
Margaret Island is a mosaic of parkland and gardens perched in the middle of the Danube River in downtown Budapest. One recent afternoon, roughly 500 people mingled on a grassy field, eating picnic lunches and watching their kids ride ponies and play ping-pong and foosball.
A dozen children danced to a ladybug song in the shadow of a stage under a Jobbik Party banner that read, “Get away thieves. This is my country.”
After lunch, the children’s music stopped and politics took centre stage.
A few days before, the Magyar Garda paramilitary group had arrived in the village of Cegled and thrown rocks through the windows of Roma homes, said Szoke, who witnessed the attacks.
“Yes, there was a problem in Cegled,” Jobbik Party official Pal Gabor said in his speech at the Jobbik rally. “Only because the Garda were cool, there was peace. The gypsy horde was walking in the street, looking to cause problems.”
A man of about 60, his white hair pulled into a ponytail, stood with his family and cheered and whistled loudly.
“We have a problem with these copper skins, but I know how to fix it for a lifetime,” he said loudly. The children sitting beside him smiled.
Nearby, electrical engineer Tomas Balog pushed his baby in a stroller and explained Jobbik’s attraction.
“Every day in my neighbourhood, Gypsies are coming up and down the streets with megaphones asking to buy metal for scrap,” said Balog, 35. “Two families I know can’t go to church because Gypsies will break into their homes. They beat people up and steal.”
Istvan Budavin said he joined Jobbik because “Roma kill and attack elderly people in our countryside.”
“We are trying to protect our people and our culture,” said Budavin, 25 and unemployed. “They don’t want to work. They should be taken away. We tried to integrate them. It didn’t work. They should all go to Canada.”
Since January 2008, Hungarian newspapers have reported 52 attacks against Roma in Hungary, including the murder of seven adults and two children, according to the European Roma Rights Centre.
“Our attack list is based on the incidents reported by media, they are not official statistics,” says Sinan Gokcen, a spokesman for the centre. Police in Hungary do not maintain records showing violence against ethnic groups.
Szoke, the human rights advocate, said there are many more unreported attacks against the Roma. “They aren’t reported because Roma are too afraid to complain, the police are not interested, or the police themselves are complicit.”
On Aug. 5 in the village of Devecser, more than 1,000 members of a neo-Nazi group calling themselves the Outlaw Army descended, according to Amnesty International.
The group marched outside Roma homes, throwing water bottles and stones through windows, screaming, “You are going to die here.”
As police watched — they said later they did nothing because the visitors had registered their event with local police as a peace march — one of the Outlaw Army’s leaders, Zsolt Tyirityan, gave a speech in front of the village’s church, calling for his countrymen to “exterminate Roma from public life.”
Pach, the government spokesperson, said in an email that “the Hungarian government does everything in its power to restrict and abolish the existence of these (neo-Nazi) groups.”
Pach said that investigators are examining pictures taken during the demonstration in Devecser and have questioned 35 witnesses. “The identification of troublemakers is in progress,” Pach wrote.