Robert fled his native Hungary in the winter of 2010. At 36, he had a job and a home in Budapest. He was doing well where many were not. (The economy in Hungary crashed in 2008 and has yet to recover.) But Robert—who did not want his last name used for fear of what might happen if he’s ever sent home—is also Roma. And for the Roma, life in Hungary, which was never easy, has become much more difficult of late.
Robert, who is working part-time as a caretaker in Toronto, says he was attacked and beaten three times by gangs of Hungarian nationalists. Not long ago, someone scrawled the word “cigány”—a nasty slang for Roma—on his apartment wall. Later, a Molotov cocktail exploded against his door. Robert flew with his wife and young son to Canada. There he joined a growing queue of Hungarian Roma seeking political asylum.
Since 2008, refugee claimants from the former Communist country have soared. From a paltry 34 in 2007, the number of Hungarian applicants climbed to 2,297 in 2010. That made Hungary the top source for refugee claimants in Canada that year (it continues to lead the category in 2011).
The Immigration and Refugee Board doesn’t keep stats by ethnicity, but almost all Hungarian applicants are thought, by those who study the issue, to be Roma. And in recent years, Canadian officials have not greeted Roma asylum seekers with particular warmth. Roma refugee claimants from the Czech Republic are the main reason a visa requirement was reimposed on visitors from that country in 2009. Rumblings of a similar sanction on Hungarians bubble up every few months. Success rates for asylum seekers from Hungary, meanwhile, have dropped off in the last half-decade. In 2006, 52 per cent of Hungarian claimants were accepted; just two per cent were accepted last year.
A big reason for the drop, many believe, is the hardline public stance taken by Jason Kenney. The immigration minister, who once called Czech Roma claims “bogus,” has made no secret of his belief that many Hungarian claimants are economic, not political, migrants. Indeed, the question remains: with so many nearby European options, why are Roma flocking to Canada? Hungary is a democracy and a member of the European Union, as Kenney has pointed out. And Roma remain free to start new lives in other EU states.
Canada, says Aladár Horváth, a former Hungarian politician and Roma activist, is “more open than most Western European countries.” Government coffers are certainly in healthier shape. Italy is among several countries to propose expelling EU citizens dependent on state benefits—a move seen to target the Roma.
Horváth says discrimination against the Roma in Hungary is no fiction. Since 2008, violent attacks against Roma—at least six fatal—have been climbing. Today, says Horváth, “more than half the Roma population rightly fear they are in immediate danger.” For many would-be refugees from Hungary, “status” remains a moot point. More than 1,000 Hungarian applicants abandoned or withdrew their claims last year. If that rate keeps up, Hungary’s Roma problem, for better or worse, will become less and less Canada’s to solve.