Paul Wells explains why Canada’s policy on Roma refugees hits a flat note

A ’Gypsy’ jazz man on why so many of his people flee to Canada

More than a thousand spectators packed Koerner Hall, the opulent concert theatre on Bloor Street in Toronto, for Robi Botos’ birthday concert earlier this month. Botos was turning 34. When he came onstage the audience broke into a raggedy chorus of Happy Birthday. Botos wheeled around on his heel and bent over the piano keyboard so he could accompany the last line of the song with a bluesy phrase. “What key was that in, Robi?” somebody shouted from the back of the hall. “D flat,” he said. Perfect pitch.

There followed three hours of extraordinary jazz. Botos was born in 1978 in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary. Since he moved to Toronto 14 years ago he has become one of the city’s most prominent musicians. His guests for the concert’s second half included the great saxophonist Branford Marsalis and the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, two of the most demanding musicians in the world. Before the first tune was half done, Watts was leaning forward over his drum kit, his eyes locked on Botos’, a wide and satisfied smile on his face. I can do business with this guy, the smile said. The music sounded like a freight train.

But there was a special spirit about the concert’s first half, when Botos played with members of his family: his father Lajos Botos Sr. on drums, brother Lajos Jr. on bass and first cousin Jozsef on guitar. Here the music was more casual, often based on folk themes. Robi Botos, who befriended Oscar Peterson before Peterson died, often played in ways that specifically recalled Peterson: the way he tapped his foot, the way he dropped his right hand onto the keyboard from high altitude to kick off long phrases. I’ve been hearing about him for years, but this concert gave me a chance to confirm for myself that Robi Botos is a tremendous jazz pianist.

There was a less-than-subtle political point to the enterprise. Robi Botos and his family are Roma (he also uses the term “Gypsy,” now widely seen as pejorative), which means they belong to a community that finds itself at the centre of the latest debate over Canada’s immigration policy.

Robi Botos arrived in Toronto as a refugee claimant. He eventually obtained permanent resident status and is applying for citizenship. Most of his relatives—there are others besides the musicians—arrived long after he did, and it will be harder for them to make their claims stick than it was for him. “It’s a lot harder for them to even hope that they can stay here,” he told me before the Toronto concert.

The week that Botos was at Koerner Hall, Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, visited a Hungarian village 50 km from where Botos grew up. He was there to learn more about his department’s biggest headache: a flood of refugee claims from Hungary. Canada received 5,800 refugee claims from the European Union in 2011, Kenney’s office told me, 14 per cent more than in 2010 and more than all claims from either Africa or Asia. Some 4,400 of those claims came from Hungary. Most were Roma.

One puzzle is why Canada is such a popular destination. Last year the United States received only 47 refugee claims from Hungary, France had 33 and Belgium 188. In 2010, Canada received 23 times as many Hungarian refugee claims as all other countries combined.

Almost all refugee claims we get from the EU are abandoned, withdrawn or rejected. Kenney has often referred to them as “bogus refugee claimants.” In spring, Parliament passed Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which would allow Kenney to designate a list of “safe countries” that would be unlikely to send real refugees. Claims from those countries would be dealt with in weeks, not years. If rejected, claimants would not be permitted to appeal. Kenney’s office says $1.65 billion in health care and welfare for claimants would be saved over five years because the processing of claims from safe countries would not drag on.

Critics of the bill say it turns a blind eye to the real situation in central Europe.

“The reality in Hungary is that, for Roma and for Jews, Hungary is not safe anymore,” Robi Botos told me. “There’s half-military parties, there’s uniforms, there’s Nazi-like people running around, getting in government, getting in Parliament.” He was referring to Jobbik, the far-right party that has managed to elect 47 members to Hungary’s Parliament.

In August, The Economist reported on a march in western Hungary where 1,000 hard-right extremists threw water bottles and stones at houses they believed belonged to Roma. “You are going to die here,” they chanted.

That the situation for Roma is deteriorating in Hungary is obvious. So is the governing Fidesz party’s increasingly tenuous relationship with democratic rights and freedoms. What’s less clear is why Canada is such a hotspot for Roma, who fly over a dozen other rich democracies on their way here.

Botos told me in his case it was Canada’s reputation for tolerance. “I had friends who came here before me, and they all praised this country,” he said. “Especially because they didn’t face discrimination.”

Kenney hints that’s too wide-eyed and innocent an answer, and that the real problem is that Canada is too easy to take advantage of. Others have made that case less subtly. In September, the Sun News Network aired a commentary by Ezra Levant, who called Roma “a shiftless group of hobos” and a lot of other things. Toronto’s Roma Community Centre reported a hate crime to the Toronto Police Service; Levant’s commentary vanished from the Sun News website.

“It deeply disappoints me to see discrimination coming from the government and some of the media in Canada,” Botos said. He’s safe in Toronto, building one of that city’s more illustrious musical careers. For most of his family, the situation is more precarious. I make no claim to arbitrate their cases. When up to 50 Roma a day are landing at Pearson airport—and no other airport in the world—to make refugee claims, it’s worth a minister’s attention and concern. But would I want to send them home to Hungary, the way that country is going? No.