One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Toronto was how often I heard people speaking Hungarian. There’s hardly been a day I’ve not heard them- at a store, on the bus, or someone talking on a cell phone. My Hungarian is getting a bit rusty after so many years so I sometimes eavesdrop- it’s a great way to get some practice and reminisce of the great years I spent living in Hungary.
My jaw dropped to the ground when I first heard that most of these Hungarians were Roma people who arrived as refugees. “What happened” I thought, “Has there been some war or revolution someone forgot to tell me about?
So I checked the news and started to put the pieces together. People on the left claim that Hungary is a predominantly racist country and there’s nowhere safe for Roma people to live there. Right-leaning Canadians are saying that the Roma are only coming to Canada for the money. Both sides are as equally right as they are wrong- and both are missing a very important fact…
I’ll leave you hanging on that for a moment- first, let me give some more background…
Hungarians call their country Magyarország. Literally translated, it means country of the Magyars- a distinct race of people who compose 92.3% of the country’s population. In comparison, 1.9% of the country’s population is Roma. So, out of 10 million Hungarians, only 190,000 are Roma. Politically, the Roma have very little power.
Are Hungarians more racist than other cultures? After living and working there for three years, I have to say that they are- at least, more overtly so. Many Magyars have anger and hate for the Roma- equally, many Roma have anger and hate the Magyars. And, from my experiences walking through Budapest with an African-American friend, both sides are completely freaked out by black people. Much of Hungary’s roots comes from the peasantry- peasants aren’t well known for their tolerance towards outsiders.
Racial tensions have got quite high in a few towns. The most publicised incidents have been in Gyöngyöspata, a village of 2,600 people not far from the Slovakian border- 80% are Magyar and 20% are Roma. Some local jackasses have put together Magyar militias who march around the city intimidating the Roma. What happened there was unquestionably a horrible situation.
That said, Gyöngyöspata became world famous because it’s an anomaly- you’ll not find uniformed Magyar nationalists marching through most Hungarian towns. The Roma in this town had a genuine reason to be concerned about gang violence. But, Roma in most towns and cities do not. 600 Roma live in Gyöngyöspata- that’s 1/3 of one percent of Hungary’s Roma population, hardly representative.
Nahlah Ayed did a segment about the Roma on CBC’s the National, following a Roma family as they emigrated from Hungary to Canada. The film starts-off with pictures of the militias in Gyöngyöspata- scary, intentionally shocking images. She painted a picture that Hungary is a racist, and potentially violent, nation of people who are collectively punishing all Roma.
Ayed’s film made a similar statement about Canada:
“Hateful racism against the Roma exists in Canada too- they seem as unwanted here as they are in Hungary”
She based this on the fact that some people believe that the Roma are a criminal race. People who make blanket statements about any race of people like that are displaying extreme ignorance. A Roma musician being interviewed on Ayed’s film explained this ignorance well when he said:
“When you call a race criminal, you’re calling me a criminal, you’re calling my daughter a criminal. You’re calling everyone a criminal.”
It’s a shame Ayed didn’t heed this man’s advice. The picture she painted of Hungary was equally as unfair as anyone who labels all of Hungary as a dangerously racist country. Unfortunately, it seems like many people campaigning on behalf of Roma refugees are making this critical mistake.
NDP Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo has been very vocally in favour of the Roma being classified as refugees. She made a rather illogical speech in the legislature back in February. Here’s an excerpt:
“They were there for another reason too, and that’s a draconian bill that’s being brought in by the federal government under the auspices of Jason Kenney, Bill C-31. It’s a bill that will limit even more Roma people from being able to seek refugee by the federal government under the auspices of Jason Kenney, Bill C-31. It’s a bill that will limit even more Roma people from being able to seek refugee status in this country; we only accept 2% of those who are applying now.
First, it becomes obvious this is a partisan issue- DiNovo’s interests in the plight of the Roma are politically valuable to both her and her party. Then, notice how Canada accepts 2% of the Roma people applying for refugee status. Knowing that Gyöngyöspata, the worst-case, is 1/3 of one percent of Hungary’s Roma population- this number could make sense.
But, DiNovo seriously loses all credibility in her next paragraph:
I also remind the members that Roma were victims of the Holocaust as well: Two million Roma were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust years. The least we can do is to accept those who are already being faced with deportation from home countries, who are faced with imprisonment and violence and draconian laws throughout Europe.“
DiNovo’s superfluous use of the Nazis wins her a Godwin’s Law prize- there is no relevance in mentioning the Holocaust in this situation. Her statements about Roma ‘being faced with deportation from home countries’ is absurd- European Union citizens cannot be deported from their home countries. I’ve also never heard of Roma being imprisoned based on their race in the European Union.
But, what’s most absurd about DiNovo’s statement is her accusation about their being ‘draconian laws throughout Europe’. DiNovo is seriously out of touch with reality- you can’t make this stuff up.
The fact is that all Europeans are protected by the European Convention On Human Rights– a document similar to Canada’s Charter of Human Rights. In the case where these rights are broken, all EU citizens have the opportunity to file a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Most people I’ve asked believe that EU citizens have more rights than Canadians.
One of those rights is the right of movement across European Union countries. If an EU citizen decides to move to another country, all they have to do is move there- in most countries they are considered residents after three months. Some countries, including The Netherlands, withhold social services benefits until this three months has passed.
This is a big part of why Roma people find it to be preferable to move to Canada- refugees in this country have much quicker access to housing and income. According to an article in the Globe & Mail, one family of four Roma refugees had a monthly social services income of $2,500. Their rent was $1,000 per month- this leaves them with $1,500 for food and other expenses. This doesn’t sound like a lot of money to most Canadians. But, for people moving from a small village in a remote part of an economically depressed country, it’s a significant boost in lifestyle.
If a Roma family of four flies from Budapest to Toronto on discount fares, the tickets would cost about $2,500. Thanks to the magic of Europe’s discount airlines, that same family could get to Amsterdam for less than $250. Considering this economic barrier, why would they chose to come to Canada? Are we less racist here than The Netherlands?
A family from Gyöngyöspata who have $2,500 have an ample amount of money to move to a different Hungarian city. They also wouldn’t face the barrier of learning a new language, country, laws and rules. Equally, they could move to France, Holland, the UK or one of the 23 other European countries. They’d be closer to their home, friends and extended family than if they moved to Toronto.
Besides the cheaper (and more accessible) transportation, there’s one key difference between moving to Canada or another EU country. In Canada, Roma are classified as refugees- giving them quicker access to state funds and a wider selection of social services and benefits. It’s a smart investment to pay the extra airfare to Canada.
If the Europeans weren’t laughing at Canada’s naïveté, they’d probably be deeply offended with us right now. Because, by accepting EU passport holders as refugees, we are in essence saying that the European Union is a dangerous violator of human rights. The entire premise of this argument is preposterous.
But, the Europeans aren’t offended, instead, they’re laughing all the way to the bank. Dutch taxpayers are happy that family didn’t move to Amsterdam. In essence, by accepting as Roma refugees- Canadians are subsidizing social problems inside the EU. It’s no wonder so many Europeans view Canadians as a naive culture.
More importantly, the people supporting the Roma as refugees in Canada are making a mockery out of the refugee system and making the situation worse for real refugees in the future. Bill C-31 (a reaction to this mockery) will result in genuine refugees facing the risk of being put into prison on their arrival. That bill is (obviously) too draconian- if even a single family of genuine refugees had to go through this process it will be a great tragedy.
It would be easy to try and put the blame the current situation on Roma who come to Canada making false claims- but, it would also be very unfair. The real focus should be on the people who are enabling this unfortunate charade People like Cheri DiNovo and Nahlah Ayed who are only telling us part of the story- and missing out on the ‘little’ details like the fact that Roma have full rights of mobility across the EU.
The politicians (on both sides) benefit by pleasing their voters, the voters get a (fake) feel-good vibe- the Roma will eventually become citizens and support DiNovo through eternity. Meanwhile, real refugees are out there suffering.