The federal government’s push to reduce the number of Roma refugees from Hungary appears to be working, with a drop of hundreds to only dozens of Hungarians filing for asylum since the crackdown late last year.
Hungarians, who claimed asylum in Canada more than any other nationality from 2010 to 2012, are now being deported back to their home country where many Roma say they face poverty, stigmatization and intimidation by extremist groups.
The number of Hungarian asylum seekers declined to just 33 between January and March this year, compared with 724 for the same period last year.
Local Roma and experts say people are now choosing instead to go to Britain, where, as citizens of the European Union, they have a right to live and work without needing to file for refugee status.
In Miskolc, an industrial city in northeastern Hungary where 40 per cent of Hungarian refugees to Canada originate, billboards informing residents of the new asylum rules were erected by the Canadian government in January.
In December, Hungary was placed on a list of “safe countries,” meaning refugees will now have their claims assessed much more quickly. They have no right to appeal decisions to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) and failed claimants are deported faster.
The government says reducing the number of claims from countries determined to be safe will save resources and help prioritize refugee claimants who are in most need of protection.
Jason Kenney, then the immigration minister, visited Miskolc last October on a fact-finding mission to determine why so many refugees originate from one city.
Many Roma from this city say the new system unfairly targets their community.
Attila Varga, a Hungarian Roma from Miskolc, fled to Canada with his family in 2009 after his neighbour had a Molotov cocktail – a common weapon used in anti-Roma attacks – thrown into his house. Mr. Varga says the police advised him and his neighbours at the time to keep buckets of water in their houses, in case they faced a similar assault.
Around this time, a series of violent attacks targeting Roma were carried out allegedly by a group of right-wing extremists. Between 2008 and 2009, six people were killed and several were injured. On Tuesday, four men were convicted of carrying out the racially motivated attacks and three of them were given life sentences without parole.
Extremist groups have been a source of fear for minority communities in Hungary, where there are an estimated 750,000 Roma. Members of these groups march through neighbourhoods, often dressed in military-style uniforms shouting anti-Roma slogans and claiming they are fighting “Gypsy criminality.”
One paramilitary group, the Hungarian Guard, was disbanded in 2009 but others with similar ideologies and rhetoric have emerged.
The existence of these groups is one reason why human-rights activists say Hungary is not a safe country for everyone.
“We feel that the newly introduced immigrant law is openly against Roma,” said Attila Tamas, a Roma advocate in Miskolc. Word is spreading in the Roma community, he said, that “it’s not a good time” to go to Canada.
For Mr. Varga, who has five children, the attack on his neighbour persuaded him to move to Canada and claim asylum.
“[My] life changed completely just by being in that situation there [in Canada],” he said. Mr. Varga worked as a waiter in Toronto, a job he said he could never hope to get at home.
“[I’ve] never been in such a good country.”
However, in 2011, he was deported after going back to Hungary to visit his wife’s sick sister. Mr. Varga said he believed he had permission from immigration authorities to visit Hungary and does not know why he was deported.
Now back in Miskolc, he said he encounters prejudice routinely. He said people will often change seats on the bus if he sits next to them because he is Roma. “It’s always like this. This is a different life here.”
According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), Hungarians can still apply for asylum and receive a full IRB hearing.
A CIC spokesperson stated in an e-mail, “Like every country on the DCO [designated countries of origin] list, Hungary was determined, on balance, to respect human rights, offer state protection and have mechanisms for redress if these are infringed.”
Jozsef and Erika, who live in Miskolc and would not give their full names, were deported from Canada with their two children in March. They do not know whether their asylum case was affected by the new policy but they say Hungary is not a safe country. They say that, from their children’s school to the local shop, prejudice is a fact of life.
They say they did not experience this kind of intolerance in Canada, where they lived for three years.
For residents of Fecskeszog, a Roma settlement in the town of Sajoszentpeter near Miskolc, applying for asylum in Canada has been commonplace – many have similar stories of short-lived stays followed by deportation. One woman, named Beatrix, lives in Fecskeszog and said she thinks half of the people in this settlement have been to Canada. Most were deported or voluntarily returned.
She herself went to Canada with her husband in 2010. The reason, she says, was not to escape persecution but to join her husband’s family which was already there. The ethnic tension present in Miskolc is less evident in the close-knit Fecskeszog – people here are mostly concerned with their livelihoods. The divergence between the two communities is evidence of the varying sense of security for Roma in Hungary.
According to Beatrix, after seeing so many friends and family return from Canada, many people are now choosing to escape to England instead. They have gotten the message that, in Canada, deportation is their likely fate.