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Why did so many Czech Roma apply for asylum in Canada?
28-07-2009 - Ian Willoughby
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 problem.

“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 status?

“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.”

Ivan Veselý 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 majority population.

“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.”



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