Why did so many Czech Roma apply for asylum in Canada?|
Two weeks ago Ottawa imposed visa restrictions on Czechs after more than
1,700 Czech Roma, or gypsies, sought refugee status in Canada in the first
six months of this year. That was a huge increase on the 650 or so in the
whole of 2008, which was already a high figure. So, what led so many Czech
Romanies to apply for asylum in Canada?
Aleš Horvath lives in Pardubice, 100 km east of Prague. He and his family
had been planning to follow the hundreds of other Czech Roma who have
applied for asylum there – that is before Canada introduced visas for
Czechs two weeks ago. Horvath says he has simply had enough of racial
discrimination in the Czech Republic.
“Ninety percent of us have been attacked, including me, my brother, my
cousins, everyone’s experienced physical attacks. On top of that, I
can’t go into just any restaurant or disco with my wife, many places
won’t let us in. It’s 2009 and our children get called black bastards
as soon as they start school – other kids are taught by their parents
that gypsies are bad, that they’re dirty, they steal, and so on.”
Many Czech Roma asylum applicants had relatives in Canada who moved there
in the mid 1990s, before – alarmed by their growing number – Ottawa
imposed a visa restriction in 1997. It stayed in place until October 2007.
Aleš Horvath says his wife’s parents and sisters have been living in
Canada for 12 or 13 years, and his family was preparing to join them.
Though their plans have been thwarted, he says Ottawa’s step was logical.
“I understand the fact that Canada said, enough. It introduced visas to
punish the Czech Republic, not the Roma, for not sorting things out here.
There are Roma here who don’t want to leave, but they’re forced to go.
I think it was last month that Canada told the Czechs they if they didn’t
deal with that, then they would bring in visas…Roma are still leaving,
the problems remain, so it was to be expected.”
The Czech government itself says there is a link between the fact so many
Roma applied for asylum in Canada and an increase in anti-Roma
demonstrations and statements by far-right groups in the Czech Republic
over the past year. Violence is not uncommon, with the most notorious
incident the firebombing of a Roma family’s home in north Moravia that
left a two-year-old girl in a coma with burns on 80 percent of her body.
Horvath says he is frustrated more hasn’t been done to combat the
“Now things have developed to the point that these extremists are
marching on ghettos, the thing that really gets the Roma is that nobody is
dealing with the fact such marches are taking place – not the government,
not the interior ministry, nobody. They think it’s enough when the police
appear on TV and say, we contained the extremists, so everything passed
OK…but the very fact they were there at all is itself a crime.”
Roman Kryštof is a journalist who has worked in the field of migration
and human trafficking for some years. He is the author of a report on the
Czech Roma emigration to Canada based on interviews conducted both there
and in the Czech Republic. Why does he think so many applied for refugee
“Since it’s not for the first time there was a wave of Romanies to
Canada, the answer is quite simple – Canada lifted a visa restriction and
all those who wanted to join their families, or had some kind of, let’s
say, invitation from other people, went. And they used the asylum
procedure, which I think is fundamentally wrong.”
Did the rise in extremism in the Czech Republic in the last year or two
contribute to the number of Romanies who left this country?
“It has certainly contributed, but I don’t think it’s the main
reason there was suddenly such a number of Romanies asking for asylum in
Canada. They would have gone, they would have asked for asylum, even if
there wasn’t such a media and publicly known rise in extremism. Because
none of those we interviewed had actually witnessed or was the target of
any kind of racist attacks. They heard about them…”
So what are the reasons then that they’ve gone?
“We found out that there is some kind of system of invitation, we called
it a ‘prospector system’, where these people are leaving to join there
families…but to our knowledge in much more numerous cases just to use the
asylum procedure to start a better life. They have people there who advise
them, a lot of them are from NGOs, some are from some kind of Roma
political circles…and such things are conducted.”
In your findings, what did the Czech Roma who went to Canada want to do
there? Did they want to claim welfare or did they want to work?
“Generally they want to start a better life. Which is
understandable…but our findings were that most of those we met used the
same kind of living strategy as in the Czech Republic. That means a
combination of all kinds of welfare revenues and illegal work. That’s how
a lot of Romanies, I guess most Romanies, live in the Czech Republic.”
Roman Kryštof’s suggestion that there was a considerable degree of
organisation behind the Roma exodus to Canada has been disputed by Roma
activists, including Ivan Veselý of the group Dženo, who says it is
anti-Roma propaganda. Veselý says in any case it does not make sense to
differentiate between economic migrants and victims of prejudice, given
that unemployment rates among Czech Roma are so much higher than in the
“In the group of economic migrants are people who met with
discrimination on the labour market. It’s not only people who are
thinking about some social payments in Canada – some of these people were
very successful in business here in the Czech Republic have gone to
Canada…economic migrant is not something wrong…Canada needs this kind
of people, in the labour market.”
Well, Ottawa clearly doesn’t think so. In any case, at home in Pardubice
Aleš Horvath says Canada’s introduction of visas has merely delayed his
plans to start a new life beyond the borders of the Czech Republic.
“It doesn’t alter the fact I want to leave. I can’t go to Canada,
but I can go to England, to Ireland, to Belgium, to France. I have
relatives in those countries and they’re keeping an eye out for work for
me – if something turns up, I’ll pack up and go in two or three days.
We’re Roma, we’ve always travelled about: it’s no problem for us to
settle in one place then up sticks and settle somewhere else.”