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Spinning the Exodus: Roma Refugees Smeared in Czech Press
13-07-2009 - Gwendolyn Albert

All this week, the Czech press has been following the ins and outs of the possible reintroduction of visas for travel to Canada closely. A final announcement is expected next week, but in the meantime various allegations are being made which would be comic if the situation were not so very serious.

Lidové noviny led the way, publishing an extensive interview with Roman Krištof, former director of the Czech Government Council for Roma Community Affairs, who went so far as to allege that some in Canada have a “professional and financial interest” in the Roma seeking asylum in Canada. He named Karolína Bánomová of Ústí nad Labem, a former Roma Studies student at Charles University in Prague who was granted asylum in Canada in 1997, and Paul St. Clair, head of the Roma Community Center in Toronto, as “prospectors” of Czech Roma asylum seekers. Krištof says he learned of their involvement when performing “research” in Canada, but has refused to explain who commissioned his work. His report has not been made public, but in it, Krištof alleges that Bánomová uses an “informal communications network” to let interested asylum-seekers know when it might be the “right time” to fly to Canada and apply for asylum. She allegedly determines this appropriate timing according to information she receives from members of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) whose “confidence she enjoys”.

Bánomová and St. Clair responded to these allegations immediately, calling them completely unfounded and demanding a public apology. Since the allegations seemed to imply that the IRB was in fact itself engaged in improper conduct, I contacted Janet Dench, Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, the leading NGO for refugees in Canada, to ask what she thought of the allegations. “It is hard to understand what they might mean by suggesting IRB insiders give information about ‘appropriate timing,’” Dench said. “In the Canadian refugee determination system, there are not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ times to make a claim.”

The Czech media attempt to paint the Roma refugees as somehow illegitimate continued with Czech interpreter Jan Rotbauer, living in Canada, giving his “insight” for publication in Thursday’s edition of Mladá fronta DNES. This particular interpreter first spoke to the Czech media about the Roma refugees in June; those who subsequently contacted the IRB were told that while Mr Rotbauer used to work for them, he is no longer being contracted for this service. That did not stop MfDNES from quoting his observations of the ins and outs of the refugee process as follows: “There are situations where the clerk is certainly considering whether some of the refugees are not abusing the Canadian welfare system. For instance, if an asylum claimant does not know when his father and mother were born but he knows all to what he is entitled [sic] in Canada.” Or, “It is a fact that a certain part of Romanies [sic] return home in a couple of months… They found out that even in Canada one must earn one's daily bread.”

It is regrettable that the Czech press is engaged in such an obvious smear campaign of the Roma seeking asylum in Canada. Given this precedent, we cannot expect much serious reflection or soul-searching about this issue from the Czech media should visas be reintroduced. Editors may not realize that such coverage and the promotion of such spurious “expertise” actually become further pieces of evidence of the overwhelmingly anti-Roma sentiment prevalent in this country. Such journalism says more about the environment the Roma are fleeing than it does about any “false” asylum claims.

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