Kenney assertive on Roma refugees, but critics argue the details

The fate of Roma migrants trying to escape Hungary was the pressing issue in the air as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney gave one of his typically forceful performances today at the National Press Theatre, just off Parliament Hill, announcing new refugee rules. His critics, however, said his air of confidence covered a misleading portrayal of the real options open to the Roma in Europe.

Kenney released a list of 27 countries or origin that will be considered “safe” for the purposes of assessing would-be refugees claiming to need asylum in Canada from persecution in their homelands. All 25 European Union nations, including Hungary—the source of thousands of the ethnic Roma refugees in recent years who have filed refugee claims in Canada—are on that new list of safe countries.

These countries, as democracies with respectable legal systems, don’t normally produce real refugees fleeing persecution. So anyone from one of the listed safe countries will be processed more quickly by Canadian authorities than claimants from other countries. As well, they won’t have access to a new appeals process, open to those from other countries, if their initial applications are rejected. When their claims are rejected, they are liable to be sent home more swiftly.

In the case of the Roma people, Kenney expressed sympathy for the discrimination they face in Hungary, where he recently visited a Roma community. Still, he said “virtually none” of their refugee claims filed in Canada turn out to be valid. “In the case of Hungary,” he said, “95 per cent of the claims that have been finalized in our fair system have been abandoned, withdrawn or rejected.”

He argued that if they were genuinely fleeing persecution, they would naturally seek protection first in nearby European countries. “The European Union—we’re talking about countries that have protections for human rights every bit as strong as Canada’s, countries like Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom—all of these countries believe that claims from Hungary are manifestly unfounded,” Kenney said.

But Peter Showler, director of a refugee law research forum at University of Ottawa, said Kenney is wrong to suggest those EU countries have actually reviewed refugee claims from Hungary’s Roma. “The fact of the matter is they cannot seek asylum in other European Union countries. There is an agreement in place that you cannot seek asylum in another EU country. That’s a straightforward fact,” Showler said. “That’s a binding agreement among EU countries.”

Kenney also repeatedly asserted that the Hungarian Roma have the right of free mobility within the EU, making it suspicious that they would travel as far as Canada to seek haven from oppression. Again, though, Showler said the real opportunities for the Roma to relocate that way are very limited. “The maximum they can be in another EU country is three months unless they obtain employment,” he said. “They are undereducated, stigmatized Roma from Hungary. Their chances of finding employment in these other countries is very low.”

Debate over Hungary being put on the new safe-countries list might be too late to make any difference. The new system, part of Kenney’s wider reforms under the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, comes into force tomorrow.

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