|Romani victim of Nazi medical experimentation attempting to make seawater|
potable, Dachau Concentration Camp. Retrieved from
Very few people during and after WWII knew that another minority ethnic group in Europe had also been slaughtered: the Roma, or Gypsies, as they were then known. No one knows how many Roma were slaughtered in the Holocaust, but 500,000 is a common estimate. They were treated just as the Jews were: rounded up, sequestered, concentrated, starved, sent across the continent in cattle cars to extermination camps, brutalized and murdered, as in the mass gassings of Roma in Auschwitz. One Roma victim was an 11-year-old girl whose picture is the symbol of the restored Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands. Westerbork is where Dutch Jews and Roma were concentrated before being deported to their deaths, 1,000 people at a time every Tuesday morning. This little Roma girl was photographed peering out of a cattle-car door, wearing a white scarf that her mother fashioned for her out of a pillow-case because she was ashamed to be seen with a shaven head. (Anne Frank was deported from Westerbork too.)
Now, it seems, the slogan “none is too many” has been resurrected. Canada has a new immigration law, Bill C-31, called Protecting Canada’s Immigration System. In keeping with long-standing practice, the government is cracking down on countries that produce “too many” refugees. Our new law states that certain designated countries of origin (DCO), mostly in Europe, are democracies and therefore highly unlikely to produce refugees. People arriving in Canada from those countries will be “fast-tracked” and sent back if not found to be refugees, without the rights to appeal of refugee claimants from other countries. The legal community says that means that many refugee claimants will not have time to prepare their cases or even find legal counsel.
One person opposed to these new rules in Gina Csanyi-Robah, a Canadian Roma of Hungarian ancestry. She is opposed to these measures because Hungary has been designated a DCO, yet Hungary is a country where many Roma live and where they are persecuted. The standard prejudice against Roma is that they are nomadic wanderers who never settle down and don’t send their children to school. The reality is that for centuries they were chased across borders whenever they did try to settle down, although sometimes they were enslaved, as in what is now Romania, where Roma who displeased their masters might be crucified. In “democratic” post-Communist Hungary, many Roma are—or would like to be—permanently settled in their homes, going to work every day and sending their children to school. But that’s difficult when there are racists burning them out of their homes and murdering them. This isn’t a government practice, as under the Nazis, but the Hungarians who intimidate the Roma don’t seem to be very worried about being punished. And about 50 per cent of Roma children are in special-needs schools where they are unlikely to receive more than a primary education.
Nowadays, the Roma are supposed to be citizens of whatever European state they live in, and if that state is a member of the European Union they are supposed to have the right to move freely around Europe like everyone else who is a European citizen. They are entitled to live for three months in any European country and longer if they can support themselves. But that isn’t what has happened: instead, in the last few years France and Italy have rounded up legally-resident Roma and deported them back to Eastern Europe. And some of the new democracies like the Czech Republic and Slovenia have used various spurious criteria to claim that Roma who were born there and/or lived there all their lives were not citizens in the first place, though these measures did not always succeed.
Meanwhile in Hungary, the far-right political party, Jobbik, makes explicitly racist statements about the Roma, and paramilitary groups attack them. And according to The Economist (January 12, 2013) it’s not only Jobbik that is prejudiced against the Roma. A founding member of the ruling party, Fidesz, called Roma “animals” and described them as “unsuitable for living among people.”
So why, under these conditions, does the Canadian government claim that the many refugee claimants from Hungary, among whom are a significant number of Roma, are just here to collect social welfare benefits or free health care? It’s not enough to say they don’t need to come to Canada as they can move to other parts of Hungary or Europe, when anti-Roma sentiment is widespread and other European countries round them up and deport them. Canada is a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. According to this Convention, if you are persecuted for reasons of “race,” nationality, or “membership in a particular social group” you can claim refugee status in a country that is not your own. Many Roma are persecuted in Hungary and it’s not at all clear that the Hungarian government or the European Union is willing to protect them from mobs of Jobbik fascists and the others who consider them unworthy of life in Europe. Yet it seems as if our government –which has accepted Hungarian Roma refugees in the past—now wants to put a stop to their entry to Canada. Maybe it’s not “none is too many” but it sure sounds like “any more is too many.”
Sources: Some of the information about the situation of Hungarian Roma and the effects of Bill C-31 is from several articles in the Canadian Jewish News in December 2012 and January 2013: many in the Canadian Jewish community feel a sense of obligation to the Roma, who were their companions in death 70 years ago. I also relied on a chapter by Helen O’Nions, “How citizenship laws leave the Roma in Europe’s Hinterland” in a book I am co-editing with a colleague, Margaret Walton-Roberts, called (tentatively) Slippery Citizenship.