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CBSA statistics about which countries' citizens Canada deports, and why, belie international perceptions of our warm embrace of foreigners. Matthew McClearn looks behind the numbers

A stop sign is seen at the U.S./Canada border in East Hereford, Que.

The U.S. government's determined efforts to restrict immigration and the number of refugees entering the country has invited comparisons with Canada, heralded by some (including The Economist) as a last bastion of openness among Western countries. But Canada has its own apparatus for ejecting the unwelcome; the Canada Border Services Agency is charged with removing people who don't meet entry requirements.

To understand who Canada deports, and why, The Globe and Mail requested data from CBSA showing total removals by year, broken out by citizenship, the destination to which the person was sent and justifications for these removals. The data shows Canada removed Hungarian citizens in disproportionate numbers over the past few years. The story of those thousands of unwelcome people contrasts with international perceptions of Canada's warm embrace of foreigners.

The unwelcome

The CBSA ejects thousands of people annually. However, the data doesn't reveal much about why those people were removed: By far the most common official justification was "non-compliance," a sweeping category. Fewer than 10 per cent of removals cited criminality, the second most common justification.

A clearer picture emerges when one examines the citizenship of removed persons: Hungarians topped the removals list during the five-year period from 2012 to 2016.

It is perhaps unsurprising to discover large numbers of Americans and Chinese on the list: Both countries rank among the world's most populous, and the United States and Canada share the world's longest border between two countries. Mexico has been a major source of immigrants, and also refugee claimants: The government of prime minister Stephen Harper responded in the late 2000s by imposing new visa requirements on Mexican visitors; removals surged.

Hungary is less populous than those countries, and distant to boot. What gives?

Hungary stands out even more when one compares numbers of removals with numbers of people of the same citizenship accepted as permanent residents. The result is a crude sort of "Unwelcome Index." Between 2011 and 2015, more than three removal orders were issued for every Hungarian granted permanent-resident status.

Backstory of an exodus

Most Hungarians removed during this period were Roma, explained Sean Rehaag, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto who specializes in immigration law. Studying a random sample of 96 decisions of the Immigration and Refugee Board between 2008 and 2012 involving Hungarian claimants, Mr. Rehaag and his colleagues found 85 per cent involved Roma.

Roma comprise Hungary's largest ethnic minority. There, they encounter "discrimination and exclusion on a regular basis" concerning education, employment, housing, health and much else, according to a 2014 report by Harvard University's François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. The late 2000s witnessed the rise of right-wing political parties and paramilitaries, accompanied by increasing rhetoric, rallies and attacks directed at Roma. Many Roma sought asylum abroad; thousands arrived in Canada after it lifted visa requirements on Hungarians in 2008.

Gina Csanyi-Robah, a teacher and human-rights activist with Hungarian Roma roots met many applicants in her capacity as executive director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, and also at Toronto schools. They fled Hungary because they were "scared that their home was going to be burned down," Ms. Csanyi-Robah said. "Tired of their children getting beaten up at school and put into segregated classes. Tired of being subjected to verbal, psychological, physical violence when they left their homes."

2010: Csabane Csorba and her three-year-old grandson, Mate, examine the ruins of their house in the Hungarian Roma village of Tatarszentgyorgy. Her son Robert, 27, Mate’s father, and his other son Robert Jr., 5, were killed in a firebomb and gunfire attack by a far-right militia. Similar attacks over the years have sent a flood of Roma refugees to Canada to seek asylum from growing extremism.

Members of the radical nationalist organization Hungarian Guard attend a rally against a rise of ‘Roma crime’ in Budapest on Feb. 13, 2009. Although racist violence against Hungarian Roma peaked around 2008-09, according to an Amnesty International report published in January, they continue to experience hate crimes.

A cold reception

The federal government disagreed. Jason Kenney, immigration minister at the time, said "virtually none" of the Hungarian claims were well-founded. A 2012 report by CBSA studying this "irregular migration movement" barely discussed the human-rights situation for Roma in Hungary, but concluded "these individuals are entering refugee claims for economic betterment." (The report also alleged there was "a criminal element amongst the claimants.") The report estimated the applicants from the previous year alone could cost the federal government as much as $222-million.

Jason Kenney, shown in 2015. ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Seeking to curb this stream of asylum seekers, Ottawa distributed flyers and erected billboards in the Hungarian city of Miskolc (the largest source of Roma applicants) warning that illegitimate claimants would be promptly shipped back. In December of 2012, the government also placed Hungary on a list of countries deemed to be democratic, have independent judiciaries and sound human-rights records – improbable sources, in other words, of legitimate refugees. In 2012, the CBSA introduced a pilot program in Toronto that offered between $500 and $2,000 to failed refugee claimants to dissuade them from filing an appeal and encourage them to depart promptly. Nearly half of the participants were sent to Hungary.

"The government was basically running a campaign against Hungarian Roma," Mr. Rehaag said.

The campaign was successful. The number of Hungarian refugee claimants fell precipitously, to just 96 in 2013. Meanwhile, many applicants abandoned or withdrew their claims, and the Immigration and Refugee Board had decided relatively few cases. The net result was that the vast majority of Hungarian applications were unsuccessful during this period.

Between 2011 and 2015, the Slovak Republic, Croatia and the Czech Republic rounded out the Unwelcome Index's top four. It's no coincidence that all are Eastern European countries with sizeable Roma populations. "There was a lot of discrimination and rights abuses affecting Roma in those countries" during this period, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. After Canada lifted visa requirements on Czech nationals in 2007, for example, Canada experienced a surge in Czech refugee claimants; Canada responded by reimposing visa restrictions in 2009.

"The same discrimination Roma fled in Europe, they experienced here in Canada," said Ms. Dench.

Unbarring the gates

The plight of Hungarian Roma hasn't changed much: Although racist violence peaked around 2008-09, according to an Amnesty International report published in January, they continue to experience hate crimes. But Canada's disposition toward them has changed: Mr. Rehaag said the success rate of their refugee claims surged in recent years, to well over 50 per cent. "Canada has stopped its campaign against the Roma, and there's a more welcoming reception now," he said. The number of Hungarian claimants also recovered significantly – to 939 for the nine months ended Sept. 30 – but remains a fraction of the volume observed five years ago.