Vilmos Csikja, his wife Beata and their four children have been denied refugee status in Canada. The Hungarian Roma family is now appealing to stay in Canada based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Photo by Michael Swan

Canadian refugee reform makes it us vs. them

  • March 8, 2012

Vilmos Csikja, his wife Beata and their four children from Hungary are the kind of people Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls “bogus refugees.”

They have been in Canada three years. Their application for refugee protection was denied by the Immigration and Refugee Board, an appeal to the federal court was unsuccessful, the IRB’s appeal division turned them down and the Federal Court has now declined to overturn that decision. Their last hope is an appeal to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Only about three per cent of Hungarian Roma refugee applications are successful at the IRB. Roma refugee cases have exploded over the last five years. In 2007 there were just 34. In 2011 there were almost 5,000. The Roma refugee boom coincides with two factors — the 2007 lifting of visa requirements for Hungary and increasing prominence of the extreme right wing Jobbik party in the Hungarian parliament.

“The minister should go to Hungary, claim to be a Roma and stay there for one year,” suggested Vilmos Csikja. “And see what happens to him.”

The Csikjas were members of a prominent Gypsy folk music group called Galbeno Jag (Yellow Fire). As the band grew in popularity, it also attracted the attention of the Vedero (“Defensive Strength”) uniformed militias that patrol Roma neighbourhoods. The Vedero parrot Jobbik party rhetoric claiming poor and marginalized Roma aren’t really Hungarian and are the source of crime and disorder.

One night, on his way home from a concert, Vilmos was assaulted by a gang. His teeth were kicked out. Vilmos decided it was time to get his family out of Hungary before things got worse.

Beata’s brother and bandmate came to Canada first. He made a similar case before the IRB and was accepted. The Csikjas are mystified by the decision to turn them away.

Kenney complains that Hungarian and Czech Roma are claiming to be refugees from democratic countries in the European Union. While Roma may face discrimination in Central Europe, that doesn’t necessarily make them refugees, according to Kenney. The thousands of Roma arriving in Canada are clogging the system, making it harder for legitimate refugees to get a timely hearing, he said.

“It is irresponsible to turn a blind eye to the fact that there are a significant number of people who try to abuse our generosity by making fake asylum claims. Sixty-two per cent of claims are rejected,” Kenney said. “Turning a blind eye to that kind of abuse of our system, that’s what undermines public support for refugee protection.”

Kenney is angered that while Roma refugee claimants all show up for the initial interview with the Canada Border Services Agency — which qualifies them for an open work visa, English classes, welfare and health insurance — less than five per cent of Roma claimants show up for their hearing before the IRB.

“The measures we’re taking to disincentivize false asylum claims will shore up public support for our refugee system,” said Kenney. “Canadians want to be generous to real refugees.”

Roma and Mexican refugee claimants and refugees arriving by boat from Sri Lanka are the reasons Kenney cites for reforming Canada’s refugee act, even before the 2010 Balanced Refugee Reform Act was implemented.

Bill C-31 would give the Minister the power to place countries on a safe country list. Claimants from the list would have no right to appeal a negative decision to the IRB’s new appeal division and could be deported immediately. They would not be allowed to apply for humanitarian and compassionate leave to remain in Canada until a year after the IRB decision, by which time most will already have been deported. Even if a safe-country refugee appeals a negative IRB decision to Federal Court they will likely be deported before the appeal is heard.

The words “bogus refugees” come up over and over in media interviews and House of Commons statements as Kenney and the Conservative government make the case for their new bill.

“I make no apologies for using plain English,” Kenney told The Catholic Register.

Mary Jo Leddy, co-founder of Toronto’s Romero House for refugees, likens Bill C-31 to prohibition, which created a lucrative market for smuggled, illegal booze. The difference is the cargo is now human beings.

Mary Jo Leddy, co-founder of Toronto’s Romero House for refugees, likens Bill C-31 to prohibition, which created a lucrative market for smuggled, illegal booze. The difference is the cargo is now human beings.

Photo by Michael Swan

Refugee advocates call it an ugly campaign to vilify and bully all refugees.

“Does it create an atmosphere of hostility toward refugees? Absolutely,” said University of Toronto professor of law Audrey Macklin.

Macklin believes the government wants a refugee system in which they call all the shots.

“The government has a hierarchy of refugees that is related to the control the government gets to exercise in choosing them,” said Macklin.

Bill C-31 and the politics behind it could have a dark side-effect — pushing people underground. If refugees see the new system as stacked against them, they may decline to apply for refugee status, said Macklin. They will instead opt to live as undocumented migrants, dodging the law, living and working on the margins the way 12 million undocumented people do in the United States.

“It’s bad for refugees and bad for Canada if refugee claimants are too afraid to come forward,” Macklin said.

Mary Jo Leddy is co-founder of Toronto’s Romero House for refugees. She likens C-31 to prohibition, which created a lucrative market for smuggled, illegal booze. The difference is the cargo is human beings.

“Bill C-31 criminalizes refugees who simply want to live,” said Leddy. “I believe this is a pro-life issue for the churches. It is not a crime to want to live.”

Leddy can’t understand what is gained by an us-against-them mentality in Canada’s refugee system.

“This makes it much like the refugee process in the United States,” said Leddy. “Until now, Canada could take pride in the fact that its refugee determination system was independent of political interests.”

Kenney believes this country needs a tougher and faster refugee system so Canada can pursue open visa policies. Canada needs to encourage open, visaless travel to Mexico and the European Union, where we already have or are pursuing free trade agreements.

“Visas impede Canada’s commercial and diplomatic interests around the world, including with Mexico,” said Kenney. “The only way we can consider further visa liberalization is if we know we have the tools to address large waves of unfounded claims from such countries.”

When religious communities get together to sponsor refugees of their choosing they are exercising their religious freedom and civic responsibilities, said Martin Mark, executive director of the archdiocese of Toronto Office of Refugees. The government shouldn’t be in the business of telling Canadians which refugees they can or cannot sponsor, he said.

“The government should and has to set priorities. Therefore, they have their own (government-sponsored refugee) program. However, the civic sponsorship program as I call it, it’s a civic initiative,” he said. “In civil society, regardless of government priorities and the political will, we do what we believe in our heart with the expertise we have in the community.”

Kenney blames the eight-year backlog of refugees from East Africa on “irresponsible” refugee sponsorship agencies “dumping thousands of applications per year” on the Nairobi visa post. While Canada sets targets and limits on the number of refugees it will settle in any given year, there has been no limit on the number of applications Canadians can launch to sponsor those refugees. The result has been a backlog of 23,000 refugees with private sponsors waiting in Canada while Citizenship and Immigration continues to process about 7,000 per year.

“This is the problem we’re trying to solve,” said Kenney. “We’re trying to end the vicious cycle of longer wait times and longer backlogs.”

Kenney has temporarily increased the privately sponsored refugee program by 20 per cent per year and placed caps on new applications, particularly for African refugees.

Bahai and gay refugees from Iran, Christian refugees from Iraq, Karen refugees from the Thai-Burmese border are all high on the government’s priority list.

“In a world with millions of refugees, where you can’t take them all, you have to make choices,” said Kenney. “We think ours are well-grounded and balanced choices.”

“Bill C-31 makes refugees pawns in our political games,” said Leddy. “No country wants to be labelled as unsafe. That would be bad for trade and tourism. Thus, countries such as Hungary and Mexico are lobbying hard to ensure that refugees from those countries are labelled ‘bogus.’ Some day in the future, a prime minister will get up and apologize for the way in which we shut out people whose only crime was that they wanted to live. Apologies, like tears, are not enough.”

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