There has been a lot of controversy lately about Immigration Minister Jason Kenny’s plans to change benefits for refugee claimants. One of the most prominent (and largest) groups of refugees the past few years have been Hungarian Roma, so they are a big part of the debate. I was shocked when I first heard this- it was beyond my imagination to think Canada could be accepting refugees from a country within the European union…
I have an intimate relationship with Hungary. It was the first country I lived in when I moved to Europe, I learned the language and integrated myself quite deeply into their culture. Years later, after I moved away, I even returned there to hold my wedding ceremony. I cook a mean gulyás. Needless to say, I love this country, and always look forward to my next trip there.
I’ve had many experiences with the Roma- some good, and some bad. Being a foreigner there, I was a bit of a target, and had many instances where Roma had tried to rob or pickpocket me. Equally, I worked with a truly wonderful Roma man who I am still friends with this day. One can’t judge an entire culture by these experiences- there are both good and bad people in the Roma community.
That said, this is a community with some serious problems- most of them related to poverty. This is a common problem with nomadic cultures around the world- they typically are poorer, less educated, facing issues of racism and exclusion. The Roma face similar problems as Irish Travellers, and the Dom People in the Middle East.
I love the Hungarians- but, will be the first person to admit that many people in their culture are rather racist. Their country has gone through tough times over the past hundred years, they’ve been invaded and repressed by foreigners many times, and they consequently have a difficult time dealing with people who are not like themselves.
If you wish to insult a Hungarian (please don’t try this at home) probably the worst thing you could call them is a “Cigány paraszt” (Gypsy Peasant). So, it’s hard to deny that many Hungarians have problems with the Roma. That said, like most countries, there are as many Hungarians who aren’t racist as who are. The only real difference with the Hungarians is that they are more likely to express it than people in other countries.
But, the Roma aren’t all innocent in this problem- from my experience, a large number of Roma are racist too. My Roma colleague would always remind me of this- and he used to share with me that people in his own community would exclude him because he was working for Hungarians. Regardless of what Canadian radicals like to say, racism is a two-way street- marginalized people can be racist too.
There weren’t very many Roma in Vancouver, so I wasn’t very aware of the influx of Hungarian Roma until I arrived in Toronto. I was shocked when, on my first week here, I saw a Roma woman begging at the entrance to the Dufferin subway station. For a moment I had a flashback to being in Hungary, both because of this sighting, and because the poor quality of the station- it was a rather awakening experience. Since then, I’ve met several Roma, and have twice had the opportunity to help translate for them in my local corner store.
This leads us to the question- should Hungarian Roma be accepted as refugees in Canada?
The Left will answer with an unequivocal yes. They will cite problems with racism and other challenges Hungarian Roma face back at home. They will cite extreme examples like the incidents in the town of Gyöngyöspata, where Hungarian neo-nazis have got into serious confrontations with the Roma population. The Guardian newspaper has made a video about their Roma’s plight in this town- it is a bit one sided, but does give a good idea of what is happening there.
The problem is that this is an extreme example- the majority of Hungarian towns wouldn’t accept this sort of behaviour, and to judge the whole country by one town of ignorant people is inherently unfair. Equally, if the Roma are (sadly) forced to leave this town, there are many places within Hungary, and the rest of the European Union, where they could find a safe haven.
People on the Right have strong reservations about refugees in-general, so they often resort to emotional arguments to make their cases. In the recent controversy about providing medical benefits to refugees, Jason Kenny makes a rather controversial statement:
“That does underscore the reasons why we’ve reformed the Interim Federal Health Program. There’s no doubt that it has been a draw factor for many false asylum claims,”
Personally, I believe that this statement doesn’t apply to immigrants from countries in the European Union. Hungary, for example, has a decent public health service- it could be better, but it is very doubtful people will uproot their families and travel half-way around the world so they can receive Canadian medical benefits. In fact, from my experience, waiting times are much less at Hungarian hospitals than in Canada. So, if this statement is true, it is only for a minority of Hungarian Roma immigrants.
But, Hungarian Roma still face racism, right? Racism is pervasive across many countries around the world though. The real question is if the Roma face state-sanctioned racism. This is not true in Hungary- in fact, it is quite the opposite these days. The current centre-right Hungarian government has been creating programs to help better integrate the Roma. Additionally, as European citizens, the Roma have full access to the European Court of Human Rights.
So, while it is true that Hungarian Roma face serious challenges in asserting their rights, I don’t believe that promoting immigration is the solution to their problems. There are several hundred thousand Roma in Hungary, and it isn’t possible for us to take them all into Canada. And, as is typical with immigration- the people who leave there tend to be the most motivated and likely to succeed at fixing their country’s problems.
Additionally, immigration will not easily solve the Roma’s problems with integration. The Roma have equal problems relating in Canadian society as they do back in Hungary. This has been shown by the Toronto school systems challenges from the Roma influx. Other new problems with the current wave of immigration include increased incidents of human trafficking an other cases where people take advantage of their newcomer status. Immigration creates as many problems for the Roma as it solves.
Probably the best thing we can do to help the Roma would be to have more Canadians spending time in Hungary. Living there, I was able to have serious conversations with Hungarians about their issues with racism, and was able to succeed at helping many people see past their filters of racist ignorance. I learned many things from the Hungarians too- history, new perspectives, and how to cook some great food. This is the beauty of cultural exchanges- both sides learn and grow.
So, why do so many Roma want to relocate to Canada? It’s simple really, for the same reason that most Portugese, Polish, Czech and other immigrants from poorer parts of the European Union- they are highly motivated by the economic benefits of living in our country. Hungary has gone through some serious economic challenges over the past years, and many Hungarians would like to move here now.Considering this, it isn’t fair to give people a fast-track to immigration based on their race. Many people would see this as being another form of racism…