Canada-bound Hungarians with valid travel documents have been interrogated at Budapest's international airport and denied permission to travel by unidentified officials dozens of times in recent months, CBC Montreal Investigates has learned.
- Roma refugees victims of systemic discrimination in Canada, new report finds
- The National: Seeking Safety, the Roma and Canada
Men and women who refuse to give their names or job titles have been picking passengers out of check-in lines at Ferenc Liszt International Airport, interrogating them, then denying them permission to board their flights. Budapest-based NEKI, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of Roma, says most of those who have complained of being singled out are from the ethnic Roma population.
Many of the flights are operated by Montreal-based Air Transat.
The organization said it has received complaints from nearly 50 Hungarians who have encountered this problem, the majority of them Roma, who have faced decades of discrimination and racism in Hungary and other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Roma from Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic have all sought refugee status in Canada in recent years on the basis they are persecuted at home.
'Are you Roma?' traveller is asked
One recent example is from mid-September.
A Hungarian woman and her five-year-old daughter were not allowed to board their Toronto-bound Air Transat flight on Sept. 17, despite presenting valid passports and return tickets for early October.
CBC News has agreed not to name the pair, as the woman's brother and husband were granted refugee status in Canada after demonstrating that their lives and the lives of their family members have been threatened in Hungary.
The woman said while she and her daughter were waiting in line to check in for their flight, they were singled out by an official-looking man and woman who refused to tell her their names or who they worked for, and refused to show her identification.
She said she was asked why she wanted to go to Canada.
"I answered straight away that I would like to see my brother and my husband, who has been there for four months now," she told CBC News in a Skype interview from Hungary.
"The next question was, 'Are you Roma?'" she said. "The person asked whether my brother is a Roma."
She told them, "No."
She and her daughter were then denied boarding, received no explanation, and were advised to call Air Transat, she said.
Her husband in Toronto made that call on her behalf.
He said the airline told him the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) had issued a written recommendation not to board his wife and daughter, but that he could not obtain a copy of that recommendation, as other passengers were named in the report.
'Officials' not identified
CBC News has obtained a photograph purportedly taken at Ferenc Liszt International Airport, which witnesses said shows two of the people seen picking would-be passengers out of check-in lines to interrogate them.
The Hungarian mother of the five-year-old — as well as two other travellers CBC spoke to who were denied boarding other Canada-bound flights — all identified the man and woman as the pair who questioned them.
In the picture, the man is wearing khaki pants and a pale blue short-sleeved shirt with a badge on his lapel pocket.
The woman appears to be wearing a dark blouse and skirt.
CBC News has tried to identify the two people in the photograph, to no avail.
Final decision rests with airline: CBSA
Both Air Transat and the CBSA declined interview requests for this story and only accepted written questions via email. In their email responses, they failed to answer several of CBC's questions, including those concerning the identity of the two people in the image.
The airline said Canadian officials have recently been present in Budapest to screen passengers about the purpose of their planned trips to Canada.
In an email statement, it said officials "determined that certain travellers were apparently lacking appropriate documentation," and "recommended that Air Transat deny boarding or risk incurring liability for improperly documenting arriving passengers."
The airline said any allegation of racial profiling is groundless. It said if an airline is found to have failed to do proper screening, it has to pay the costs of returning any passenger who is not allowed to stay in Canada.
CBSA spokesperson Line Guibert-Wolff said in an email statement that the "CBSA conducts flight monitoring and airline training." She said the CBSA has "liaison officers" who help airlines ensure passengers are properly documented.
Guibert-Wolff said these liaison officers make recommendations to airlines, but the final decision on whether to board passengers is left up to the airline.
Government 'doesn't want refugees'
Halifax-based passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs first heard about travellers being denied the right to board Canada-bound flights after visiting Hungary in the summer.
He told CBC News he does not understand why those would-be passengers who remain stuck in Budapest are not given an explanation.
"The current government very obviously doesn't want refugees in Canada," Lukaçs said.
He suspects federal authorities are trying to reduce the number of refugee claimants by keeping people who they believe might make claims from boarding flights to Canada.