Roma Community and Advocacy Centre protests

Ronald Lee1

The Roma Community and Advocacy Centre (RCAC) of Toronto, Canada, held a press conference on Thursday, February 4, 1999, at the CultureLink centre on Bathurst Street in Toronto to protest two recent negative decisions involving Hungarian Romani Convention refugee claimants by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The decisions were the result of hearings orchestrated by the IRB beginning in late Autumn 1998. The unprecedented hearings - which in at least one of the cases included ten separate sessions - were intended to act as test cases to determine whether or not Hungarian Roma suffer persecution in Hungary; what the country conditions are concerning the Romani minority; and whether or not Hungary can be considered a country where Roma cannot obtain government protection against attacks by skinheads and neo-Nazis. Related issues discussed were whether Roma have equal access to schooling, housing and employment and whether they have the right to maintain their language and cultural traditions.

The claimants involved in these test cases were unable to bring their own witnesses from Hungary, putting them at significant disadvantage in the hearings. The witnesses, who were brought from Hungary by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration (CIC), were Jenő Kaltenbach, Parliamentary Commissioner for National and Ethnic Minorities in Hungary, Lipót Höltzl, Deputy Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Flórián Farkas, President of the Hungarian National Gypsy Self-Government - the state advisory body on Romani affairs in Hungary, and András Bíró, journalist and Chairman of the Board of the ERRC. Mr Bíró, Mr Höltzl and Mr Kaltenbach are not Roma. Mr Farkas is a non-Romani speaking ethnic Rom.

The witnesses called by counsel were Orest Subtelny, professor of history and political science at York University (Toronto), a specialist in national minority-majority relations in central and eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union and Dr Ian Hancock, professor in the Department of Linguistics and English at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr Hancock testified long-distance by telephone conference. Mr Subtelny is a Canadian, non-Romani academic while Mr Hancock is a Rom, speaks fluent Romani and is a respected authority on Romani history, language, culture and the persecution of Roma in the former Soviet-bloc countries.

Other witnesses suggested by counsel - persons considered to be genuine Roma activists in Hungary, working without financial support from the government and not reliant on the goodwill of the government for their salaries, positions and political advancement - were not acceptable to Canadian Immigration as witnesses. Their potential testimony was deemed unnecessary.

The two IRB Decisions, released January 20, concluded that Roma face discrimination in Hungary but not the persecution necessary to be considered a refugee under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This does not agree with the testimony offered by large numbers of Hungarian Roma refugees now in Canada nor with news reports and material published by non-governmental organizations, civil rights organizations or the recent report of the US Commission On Security And Cooperation in Europe. The latter states: "Conditions of life within the Romani community are significantly worse than among the general (Hungarian) population. Roma suffer from discrimination and racist attacks and are considerably less educated, with lower than average incomes and life expectancy. The Romani unemployment rate is estimated to be 60 to 85 percent, over six times the national average of 10.3 percent."2 The report also points out that Romani children are segregated in school and are forced to attend substandard schools where they receive inferior education. Decision in a third IRB test case is pending.

The testimony given by Mr Subtelny and Mr Hancock in the two cases decided was evidently disregarded by the IRB panel since neither of them were deemed to have first-hand recent experience of the alleged improvements in the situation of the Roma in Hungary. Apparently the testimony of the other four witnesses - Mr Bíró, Mr Farkas, Mr Höltzl and Mr Kaltenbach - was not convincing enough to influence the decision of the IRB in the test cases as to the need for many Hungarian Roma to seek safety in Canada as Convention refugee claimants.

If these two negative decisions are upheld and can be referred to as template cases at future IRB hearings involving Hungarian Romani refugees, they could have a negative impact on the more than 1,000 cases still pending as of February 5, 1999. In 1998, a total of 976 Hungarian Roma refugees filed claims, 153 cases received positive decisions, 64 received negative decisions, 85 cases were withdrawn and 95 abandoned. Immigration figures show that the number of Hungarians applying for refugee status in Canada has risen dramatically from 10 in 1994 to 38 in 1995, 64 in 1996, 300 in 1997 and 972 in 1998. Independent monitors have noted that most if not all of these Hungarians are Roma fleeing persecution on ethnic grounds in Hungary. More are arriving every week.

The RCAC press conference panel consisted of Paul St. Clair, executive director of RCAC, Judith Kopacsi Gelberger, member of the Board of Directors of RCAC, Francisco Rico Martinez, president of the Canadian Council of Refugees and Jack Martin, executive director of the Refugee Lawyers Association. Peter J. Wuebbolt, the Toronto-based immigration lawyer whose firm represented the three Hungarian Roma in the test cases (and who has now launched appeals), George Kubes and other Toronto immigration lawyers were also present in the audience along with about fifty Hungarian Roma refugees whose claims are being processed, members of RCAC, volunteers working with RCAC and other interested parties.

Ms Gelberger, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Hungary, pointed out that she doubts the IRB really wanted to know the truth. She suggested that the Board simply flew in witnesses sympathetic to the Hungarian government who would whitewash the situation of the Roma there. Mr Martinez, president of the Canadian Council of Refugees explained that members of the refugee community meet regularly with the Canadian Immigration Department and his organization was never informed that the IRB intended to treat the Hungarian Roma cases any differently than other cases. Mr Martin, of the Refugee Lawyers Association also explained that the lawyers representing the claimants who will be affected by these test-case decisions should have been given an opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses representing the Hungarian government, since their testimony may play a key role in future decisions.

Romani members of the press conference audience accused Hungary of tolerating the persecution of Roma. They told of attacks perpetrated by skinhead and neo-Nazi gangs and abetted by the Hungarian non-Roma population who practice systemic discrimination against Roma. Many Hungarian Romani refugees claim that Roma in Hungary are living under apartheid conditions.

One conspicuous member of the audience was Gabor Menczel, the Toronto-based Consul General of Hungary. Mr Menczel denied the allegations of the Roma present, and retorted that: "The official policy of the Hungarian government doesn't recognise any persecution of any minorities." He did admit that there have been some incidents of violations of Roma rights. He added that it takes time to enforce certain laws, apparently referring to reforms which will take place at some undetermined future date.

The Hungarian government has promised to assist any Roma refugees in Canada who return to Hungary. According to reports in the Hungarian media they will be provided with financial assistance in finding decent housing and employment which they were utterly unable to obtain before they were forced to flee Hungary. The history of racism in many countries has shown that governments cannot enact laws which will ensure that landlords who hate Roma will rent them decent apartments, employers who hate Roma will hire them and means by which unemployed, destitute Roma can rent decent accommodation. Reports reaching Canada from Hungarian Romani refugees who have returned to Hungary indicate that they are now substantially worse off than when they sold their meager possessions to pay for their flights and those of their families to Canada.


  1. Ronald Lee is Director of Advocacy as well as Director of Public Education & Awareness at the Roma Community and Advocacy Centre, Toronto, Ontario.
  2. See "Romani Human Rights in Europe hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe", One Hundred and Fourth Congress, Second Session, July 21, 1998. U.S. Government Printing Office 51-424 CC.

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