Hamilton's Roma community dwindles in face of new immigration rules

Once considered a haven for refugee claimants from eastern Europe because of its cheap rents, Hamilton is quickly losing members of its Roma community.
Jaroslav Mitac poses in his east-end townhouse on Friday. He's a pastor at the Hamilton Gypsy Church,which serves Roma who fled the Czech Republic. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

An evangelical pastor, Jaroslav Mitac describes an unenviable task that has become a significant part of his job: consoling congregants before they're deported.

"I talked with one family [Friday]," the 47-year-old said, speaking through an interpreter. "They were so unhappy because they had to go home on Monday."

His congregation at the Hamilton Gypsy Church, perched above a bowling alley near Barton and Ottawa streets, consists of eastern European Roma from the Czech Republic who have sought refuge in Canada, citing violence and discrimination in their home country.

Who are the Roma?

The Roma are an ethnic group that originated in India, leaving the subcontinent about 800 years ago. Over the centuries, they moved gradually westward and dispersed all over Europe.

A stateless minority, the Roma people, sometimes referred to as "gypsies," have suffered centuries of persecution. About 250,000 Roma, whom the Nazis deemed racially inferior, died during the Holocaust.

Currently, it's estimated there are more than 2,000 eastern European Roma living in Hamilton.

Now, many families trying to settle in Hamilton — including two this week — are being deported back to Europe as their refugee claims are rejected.

Others, fearing they too will be denied and deported, are leaving Canada and heading to other countries before they have a chance to make their case before an adjudicator at the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

About a year ago, Mitac's church had nearly 300 members. Now, that number stands at around 120.

"Most people, they've already been sent home because they didn't get they get a chance to get all those papers," said the Czech-born pastor. "There are so many children crying."

Once considered a haven for refugee claimants from eastern Europe because of its relatively cheap rents, Hamilton is quickly losing members of its Roma community.

"I don't see the people coming here that they're talking about anymore," said Tibor Lukacs, founder of the United Roma of Hamilton, and one of about 1,500 Czech Roma living in the city who came to Canada in the late 1990s.

The Hamilton Gypsy Church, a congregation of Czech Roma evangelical Christians, meets in an east Hamilton billiards hall. In the past year, the congregation has dropped from nearly 300 to about 120. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

"Some people are talking about 20,000 Roma. But where are these people?"

That comment squares with what settlement service organizations in Hamilton are experiencing on the ground, according to Lily Lumsden, a senior regional manager with the YMCA of Hamilton, Burlington and Brantford.

Her organization provides settlement services to refugee claimants. Between April and October, roughly 43 per cent of the refugees — about 125 people — on its caseload were from Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, countries that have produced the bulk of the Roma claimants coming to Canada.

Changes to refugee health programs

Lumsden said that increasing numbers of Roma refugee claimants are leaving the country before the government officially deports them because of changes to the health care services that are available to them in Canada.

In the spring, the Conservative government announced changes to the Interim Federal Health program, which provides health insurance for refugee claimants and protected persons. The changes meant that some refugee claimants saw a reduction of health care services, including coverage for dental, vision and pre-natal care, and prescription drugs.

Lukacs said the paring back of health services is having a distressing effect on Hamilton's Roma community. 

He said he knows of people who've been refused cancer drugs because they couldn't pay. And Mitac spoke of a woman in his congregation who was billed $1,800 after she gave birth by Cesarean-section in November.

'Nobody will want you.'

Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney's overhaul of the refugee system goes into effect Dec. 15. The biggest change will see the government draw up a list of countries from which refugee claims will be scrutinized more closely. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Lukacs said he believes the health care-related measures exist to discourage eastern European refugee claimants from putting down roots in Canada, but added that Roma in Hamilton are made to feel unwelcome in more subtle ways.

Hungarian Roma who've arrived recently, he added, have a tough time finding landlords who are willing to rent to them.

"If you say your name and it sounds Hungarian, you will be finished," Lukacs said.

"Nobody will want you."

Much of the discrimination, he said, stems from the fallout of a 2010 human trafficking case that made big headlines in Hamilton, and ultimately, all across Canada.

In 2010, the RCMP busted a group of Hungarian Roma who persuaded 19 of their own countrymen to claim refugee status in Canada by promising lucrative jobs.

When they arrived, the newcomers were forced to work for no pay and were held captive in the basement of a Mountain bungalow.

The case has had a "devastating" effect for all Roma living in Canada, said Gina Csanyi-Robah, the executive director of the Roma Community Centre in Toronto.

Jason Kenney, the federal minister of citizenship and immigration, she said, has used the case to shore up public support for the tightening of Canada's refugee laws.

"This is a case that the minister has used to justify his remarks about bogus refugee claims, to really criminalize the entire Roma community in Canada," she said.

However, the minister has denied that he has deliberately demonized the Roma community and has insisted that each refugee claim is, and will continue to be, assessed on its own merits.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act

The changes the federal government is making to Canada's immigration laws have sparked public protests, like this one in Toronto Nov. 4 outside an event being attended by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Pending changes to Canada's immigration laws may accelerate the Roma exodus from Hamilton. In June, Ottawa passed Bill C-31, which comes into full force on Saturday, to streamline how refugees are processed and discourage human trafficking.

In addition to reducing the amount of time refugee claimants have to file their paperwork, the legislation bars access to the newly-created Refugee Appeals Division for failed claimants from a list of countries the government deems unlikely to produce legitimate refugees.

Though that list has yet to be issued, the criteria the government has set out for it virtually guarantees that states such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia will be on it.

The changes will "ensure that genuine refugees fleeing persecution will receive protection more quickly," Paul Northcott, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said in a statement. "[U]nfounded asylum claimants who abuse our generous system at great expense to taxpayers, will be removed faster."

Liberal democracies in eastern Europe produce more refugee claimants to Canada than countries in Asia and Africa, he noted. Many of the migrants are European Union residents, meaning they can travel freely between member countries.

The notion that Roma the population in the Europe is safe from racial persecution leaves Mitac incredulous.

If only non-white members of the IRB board walked down the street of an average Czech town, they'd understand why the Roma are in danger, he said. 

Human right groups such as Amnesty International report that far-right skinhead groups, some invoking Nazi-era slogans, march on Roma ghettos to intimidate residents. And until recently, Roma children in many communities, regardless of their intellectual abilities, were funneled into schools for children with mild cognitive impairment.

"How can Canada think that the Czech Republic is safe for Roma people?" Mitac said, clasping his hands together.

"We pray every day, but we know when our families go back to the Czech Republic it's going to be worse."


  • An earlier version of this story suggested the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act eliminates the right to appeal for failed refugee from countries the federal government deems to be unlikely to produce legitimate refugees. In fact, the legislation bars access for those claimants to the newly-created Refugee Appeal Division.
    Dec 12, 2012 9:27 AM ET