(en) Czech Gypsies get 'cool' reception in Canada

Aaron (aaron@burn.ucsd.edu)
Fri, 19 Sep 1997 14:03:47 -0400

A AA AAAA The A-Infos News Service AA AA AA AA INFOSINFOSINFOS http://www.tao.ca/ainfos/ AAAA AAAA AAAAA AAAAA

*** 09-Sep-97 ***

Title: CANADA-REFUGEES: Cool Reception for Czech Gypsies

By Stephen Dale

OTTAWA, Sep 9 - They had been told to expect a warm welcome in Canada believing it to be a land of plenty, where racism has been banished and opportunities exist for all.

But the sudden influx of Gypsies from the Czech Republic, claiming refugee status, found a very different kind of Canada when they arrived with their lives in their suitcases and a desperate hope in their hearts.

At Toronto's international airport, some of the Gypsies - who have been called the Romany people, or Roma, since they left India centruies ago, - allegedly were pressured into flying straight back to the Czech Republic. The behaviour of over- zealous officials is now under investigation by Canada's immigration department.

But for those who did get past the immigration barrier and into the country have found that temporary lodgings, in shelters for the homeless, provide a quick and painful lesson in the social problems that exist in Canada.

''Toronto has a large population of homeless people,'' observes Donald Lee, Canadian delegate to the International Romany Union. ''Without a home to go to, the Czech Roma were sent to the same places where other homeless people go.''

Lee told IPS that Gypsy familes were put in the ''best shelters that are available to anyone but the single men were put into a place which is basically a flop-house for street derelicts.''

''They got a mattress on the floor, and when some of the other men would come in drunk, they'd ask 'who are these foreigners?' and pick fights with them. When the Czech Romany would fall asleep, the others would try to steal their rings or their money,'' Lee says

On top of the that, the Gypsies have been subject to harassment by skinheads and the revival of vicious stereotypes in Canada's press.

What sparked the flight of some 500 Czech gypsies to Canada was a documentary programme broadcast on Nova TV in the Czech Republic. The programme portrayed Canada as a country where Roma refugees could expect extensive government help in fleeing the daily discrimination and, increasingly, attacks by racist skinheads that haunts them in Europe. The program stated that Canada has generous social programs and would even provide help in paying for airline tickets.

Publicity created by the documentary led to a surge in the number of Gypsies selling their possessions and flying out to this country. The resulting crush become front-page news in Canada and led to a number of unexpected consequences.

''I've been hearing stories about Roma children who have been here for several years, have learned to speak English and were well established in school, suddenly being picked on because of the media coverage,'' says Lee, who points with disgust to the negative tone underlying much of the Canadian news reporting.

The mass circulation Toronto Star, for instance, ran a story citing an unnamed immigration department official claiming that about half the refugee claimants were believed to have criminal records. The tabloid daily Toronto Sun ran a story headlined: ''Gypsies Exist on Crime''; then a group of ''skinheads'' showed up at a motel-cum-holding centre for the Gypsies in Toronto and paraded with racist placards, taunting the families inside.

Despite the hardship that the refugee claimants have undergone, there are positive initiatives to emerge from this episode, one of which is the planned formation of a Roma Advocacy Centre to provide support for Gypsies who have come to Canada.

''The Roma people have never had to organize in Canada because we've had no political issues that needed to be fought here,'' says Lee, who is also a novelist and author of ''God-damed Gypsy,'' an autobiographical work of fiction about his life growing up in Canada as part of a nomadic Roma community of coppersmiths.

''In the past, we have come to Canada as nationals of whatever country, and this being a multicultural country, we didn't stand out.''

The new organization, he says, is emerging out of a sense of the community needing to work together, and will provide practical services for immigrants who need to learn English, find an apartment, and learn how to function in Canadian society. Lee believes the Czech Roma would fit in well in Canada, since many of them received professional training under the former Communist government, only to be stripped of their jobs later.

It is not known how many of the current Roma refugee claimants will be accepted into Canada, although Roma claims have been favourably received in the past. According to published reports, of 22 cases heard in the last ten months, only one applicant was refused.

However, the human rights community appears divided on supporting the Cezch Gypsies claim to refugee status.

John Tackaberry, spokesman for Amnesty International's Canadian branch, says the stated commitment of the Czech government to deal with persecution of the Roma creates a dilemma for the organization.

''There's no question that the Roma have had serious problems in the Czech Republic, but an outstanding issue for us is the degree to which the government is complicit or is deliberately not taking action,'' said John Tackaberry, spokesman for Amnesty International's Canadian branch.

''The overwhelming majority of the most serious cases [of persecution] are in other countries, not in the Czech Republic. )From a resource allocation point of view, we have a number of issues with countries like Bulgaria, Hungary and so forth, but the Czech Republic may be different,'' he added.

Human Rights Watch, in a 1996 report called ''Roma in the Czech Republic: Foreigners in their Own Country,'' noted that there were 181 attacks against Czech Gypsies in 1995. After a murder committed in May the next year, the government pledged stiffer penalties for racist attacks and to create a special police unit to deal with extremist violence.

Lee, however, is unimpressed by the Czech government's commitment to take action. He compares the Czech republic today to the the situation that once existed in the United States, where lynching was illegal, but still happened with impunity.

''As far as [President Vaclav] Havel can see from his office window, maybe the Roma are protected, but outside of his vision, they have just as much protection as Blacks did in the deep south or in apartheid South Africa,'' he says. (END/IPS/


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