Paul Wells explains why Canada’s policy on Roma refugees hits a flat note

A ‘Gypsy’ jazz man on why so many of his people flee to Canada

by Paul Wells

PHOTOGRAPHS BY Colin O’Connor

More than a thousand spectators packed Koerner Hall, the opulent concert theatre on Bloor Street in Toronto, for Robi Botos’ birthday concert earlier this month. Botos was turning 34. When he came onstage the audience broke into a raggedy chorus of Happy Birthday. Botos wheeled around on his heel and bent over the piano keyboard so he could accompany the last line of the song with a bluesy phrase. “What key was that in, Robi?” somebody shouted from the back of the hall. “D flat,” he said. Perfect pitch.

There followed three hours of extraordinary jazz. Botos was born in 1978 in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary. Since he moved to Toronto 14 years ago he has become one of the city’s most prominent musicians. His guests for the concert’s second half included the great saxophonist Branford Marsalis and the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, two of the most demanding musicians in the world. Before the first tune was half done, Watts was leaning forward over his drum kit, his eyes locked on Botos’, a wide and satisfied smile on his face. I can do business with this guy, the smile said. The music sounded like a freight train.

But there was a special spirit about the concert’s first half, when Botos played with members of his family: his father Lajos Botos Sr. on drums, brother Lajos Jr. on bass and first cousin Jozsef on guitar. Here the music was more casual, often based on folk themes. Robi Botos, who befriended Oscar Peterson before Peterson died, often played in ways that specifically recalled Peterson: the way he tapped his foot, the way he dropped his right hand onto the keyboard from high altitude to kick off long phrases. I’ve been hearing about him for years, but this concert gave me a chance to confirm for myself that Robi Botos is a tremendous jazz pianist.

There was a less-than-subtle political point to the enterprise. Robi Botos and his family are Roma (he also uses the term “Gypsy,” now widely seen as pejorative), which means they belong to a community that finds itself at the centre of the latest debate over Canada’s immigration policy.

Robi Botos arrived in Toronto as a refugee claimant. He eventually obtained permanent resident status and is applying for citizenship. Most of his relatives—there are others besides the musicians—arrived long after he did, and it will be harder for them to make their claims stick than it was for him. “It’s a lot harder for them to even hope that they can stay here,” he told me before the Toronto concert.

The week that Botos was at Koerner Hall, Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, visited a Hungarian village 50 km from where Botos grew up. He was there to learn more about his department’s biggest headache: a flood of refugee claims from Hungary. Canada received 5,800 refugee claims from the European Union in 2011, Kenney’s office told me, 14 per cent more than in 2010 and more than all claims from either Africa or Asia. Some 4,400 of those claims came from Hungary. Most were Roma.

One puzzle is why Canada is such a popular destination. Last year the United States received only 47 refugee claims from Hungary, France had 33 and Belgium 188. In 2010, Canada received 23 times as many Hungarian refugee claims as all other countries combined.

Almost all refugee claims we get from the EU are abandoned, withdrawn or rejected. Kenney has often referred to them as “bogus refugee claimants.” In spring, Parliament passed Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, which would allow Kenney to designate a list of “safe countries” that would be unlikely to send real refugees. Claims from those countries would be dealt with in weeks, not years. If rejected, claimants would not be permitted to appeal. Kenney’s office says $1.65 billion in health care and welfare for claimants would be saved over five years because the processing of claims from safe countries would not drag on.

Critics of the bill say it turns a blind eye to the real situation in central Europe.

“The reality in Hungary is that, for Roma and for Jews, Hungary is not safe anymore,” Robi Botos told me. “There’s half-military parties, there’s uniforms, there’s Nazi-like people running around, getting in government, getting in Parliament.” He was referring to Jobbik, the far-right party that has managed to elect 47 members to Hungary’s Parliament.

In August, The Economist reported on a march in western Hungary where 1,000 hard-right extremists threw water bottles and stones at houses they believed belonged to Roma. “You are going to die here,” they chanted.

That the situation for Roma is deteriorating in Hungary is obvious. So is the governing Fidesz party’s increasingly tenuous relationship with democratic rights and freedoms. What’s less clear is why Canada is such a hotspot for Roma, who fly over a dozen other rich democracies on their way here.

Botos told me in his case it was Canada’s reputation for tolerance. “I had friends who came here before me, and they all praised this country,” he said. “Especially because they didn’t face discrimination.”

Kenney hints that’s too wide-eyed and innocent an answer, and that the real problem is that Canada is too easy to take advantage of. Others have made that case less subtly. In September, the Sun News Network aired a commentary by Ezra Levant, who called Roma “a shiftless group of hobos” and a lot of other things. Toronto’s Roma Community Centre reported a hate crime to the Toronto Police Service; Levant’s commentary vanished from the Sun News website.

“It deeply disappoints me to see discrimination coming from the government and some of the media in Canada,” Botos said. He’s safe in Toronto, building one of that city’s more illustrious musical careers. For most of his family, the situation is more precarious. I make no claim to arbitrate their cases. When up to 50 Roma a day are landing at Pearson airport—and no other airport in the world—to make refugee claims, it’s worth a minister’s attention and concern. But would I want to send them home to Hungary, the way that country is going? No.




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Paul Wells explains why Canada’s policy on Roma refugees hits a flat note

  1. The surge of ultra far-right, overtly racist political parties throughout Europe, from Sweden down to Greece, is truly frightening; but the progs in the Western media ignore it, plug their ears, and pretend that the largely innocuous American Jesuslanders are the true bogeyman.

    Fascism is always supposedly descending on America, but it always actually lands in Europe.

    • .”ultra far-right, overtly racist political parties throughout Europe” are the same thing as “American Jesuslanders”

      Haters gotta hate….no matter the location.

    • In case you’ve not noticed, Europe has veered leftwards relative to North America. Many European countries have governments that are 50% the size of the entire economy.
      Yet for yahoos like you, somehow the problem is the “far right”. The whole continent could go communist and yahoos like you would be warning about the subversive “far right”.

  2. Thank you Mr. Wells.

  3. The really strange thing is, until now I had never heard anything about that astonishingly racist rant from Ezra Levant. I thought I followed the media in this country fairly closely. The unalloyed hate of that took my breath away.

    • Truth hurts

      • What truth…that Roma are persecuted, victimized, sterilized without consent and subject to substandard `public education“ or that Canada`s immigration & refugee policies are based on an embarassment of racial profiling and “catch twenty-two“ logic. Kenney`s `Designated Country of Origin`program fails to acknowledge that even in supposedly `safe`nations there are endangered groups. Yet we celebrate the defection of a Cuban footballer whose greatest danger is returning to Cuba after having defected (without jumping through all of the immigration hoops). All refugee claimants, even soccer stars, deserve due process, not a fast track to deportation based on the numbers of claims previously rejected or abandoned by asylum seekers from designated countries (circuitous logic at best). Glad I got to Canada 60 years ago & proud to be affiliated by family with the Roma community.

  4. Good for you Paul, fair comment all around. As a boy growing up in England i often saw gypsies[ it wasn't altogether a degrogatory term then, although it could easily become so - my dad also referred to them as Didicai[sp] ] They camped wherever they could find a bit of free public space, for as long as they could until someone complained and the council moved them on. It was so called common knowledge that they were all thieves, poachers – you only had to look at their dirty kids and women when they came into town to sell flowers and such. Of course thievery went on – what marginalized group wouldn’t skirt the edge of acceptable public mores in order to get by? It’s happened to others, including Jews, with the same sad predictable results. That’s why it is particularly galling to see EL, a Jew, disgracing himself in this way. I don’t particularly like the HRTs myself, but in this case i hope they publicly humiliate him – he richly deserves it.

    I doubt you can see groups of Roma camping in the woods or in some farmer’s fields in Britain anymore; they’re probably all herded up in some council ghetto somewhere, safely assimilated like good little citizens all should be everywhere.Some would say that’s a good thing – better health , education and they don’t steal anymore or litter the woods now, do they? But I’m glad i got to see them when i did. Even as a boy i understood that they were free in some way that we were not.

    It wouldn’t surprise if a part of the reason Roma come here is due to our generous refugee system, although i would hope it had more to do with our former reputation for welcoming the world’s down trodden and oppressed. But surely the response to those who game the system [ really i count it a mark of intelligence as much as sharp or unfair practice for anyone fleeing a bad situation] is to tighten up the loop holes – not toss people back into a potential frying pan. Just what is Kenney’s problem? The guy is intelligent and no doubt essentially decent, so why does he continue to choose always, invariably, to think the worst of refugees? I’d bend a few rules to get here out of a bad situation myself if i had to, i bet Kenney would too. They guy just baffles me. On the surface it sure does look like political pandering, as much as any desire to not reward cheaters.

    • But if our refugee system is actually more generous than others, then it would affect claims from all over not just Hungary, right? Wouldn’t a more likley answer be there is a perception our system is more generous?

  5. Well, congrats on writing a “their are some good ones” piece of …..stuff! To ignore the plight of the Roma of Europe for what it is can only be summed up as racism.The plight of the Roma is one of Non-Assimilation. This is not like the Jews of Europe, this in not like the American Indian to be corralled unto reserves, this is not a rise of Neo-Nazi Europe…..this is a society in trouble, with high unemployment looking for a scapegoat! And the Roma make it waaaaaaaaay too easy to do so. Mr. Botos had the great fortune of coming to Canada and succeeding BUT it is not Canada’s sole responsibility to rescue the Roma from the greatest enemy they have, which is themselves. If we can sponsor them a small group at a time and assimilate them into the Canadian fabric, then it is a project worthy of attempting but bogus refugee claims and scamming your way into the country is a poor way to start off!

  6. Nice to hear a Roma success story.

    I’m a bit biased as my mother was robbed by a Roma woman back in 1997 after the Visa requirements were lifted earlier that year. When police took the report their comment was “Gypsies were in town”.

    Suggest reading “King of the Gypsies” by Peter Maas.

    What I find sad is the explotation of their own.

    “A woman who helped more than 170 Romanians illegally claim £2.9m in benefits has been jailed for two years and three months.”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-11347134

    • Um, if you suddenly think ill of an entire people because of a single instance, that’s a bit more than “biased…”

  7. Listening to our current administration’s attitude compels me to suggest that everyone read “None Is Too Many” by Irving Abella.

  8. While I’m sure all is fine with this nice man who’s also a wizard of the musical notes, it is unclear as to how the Canadian public will digest all those other wallet and ATM card wizards who make a less than decent living. A most unfortunate and perpetually unbalanced situation is about to cross the Atlantic to make its way into this society, having the Canadian winter as sole dissuasion, for now

  9. Thank you for drawing attention to the complex and disturbing issue of Roma refugees and Canada`s immigration – refugee policies.I am embarrassed as a Canadian, hurt on behalf of my adult daughter (Roma by birth and Canadian by adoption) and extremely proud of her efforts to connect with the Roma community and speak out about injustice. Racial profiling is not okay whether it is conducted by individuals, organizations or governments such as ours.

  10. Certainly east and central Europe is moving towards the right, but they don’t kill Romas or send them to prison camps like the Nazis did. They give them a ticket to Canada instead. Unfortunately the Romas do seem to deserve their reputation as thieves and scam artists. You might have read recently about the human smuggling/slavery rings, for instance, in Hamilton and the GTA. That was all Roma run. I don’t think that all Roma are crooks, but they don’t seem to be doing their reputation any good here since the influx into Canada.

  11. Tolerance for what? Tolerance for abusers of the refugee system. The UN ought to find an abandoned ilsand in the Atlantic where Roma can practice developing into a people, not just a band of thieves.

    • They must have taken the gag off of Ezra. Quick, someone put it back on again please!

  12. If kenney actually does try to stop appeals from the immigration tribunals and it’s a complete ban, it would be the second unconstitutional crap he’s pulled. And unlike the anti-Muslim veiled thing, this one would be challenged.

  13. I find it very hard to support the Romanis at this point, simply due to their marriage customs. I certainly don’t advocate the level of hatred which is dictated at them by all angles of European society (definitely not just by the right, everybody in Europe dislikes them), but they certainly don’t make it easy to like them. Even if you chalk up the high levels of pick-pocketing fraud, human trafficking, and general criminality to social ostracization, you can’t defend their marriage customs. I will find it very hard to like them until they change this, and also get rid of all of their ridiculous leaders.

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