Ottawa report finds evidence of Czech discrimination against Roma

Canadian immigration officials say they have found evidence that members of the Czech Republic's Roma minority face persecution and discrimination back home amid increasing violence against them.

Nearly 1,100 Czech Roma claim refugee status in Canada in first 4 months of 2009

Roma asylum-seeker Zaneta Gananova lifts up her shirt at a Toronto-area shelter to show the swastika-shaped scars she says were carved into her skin by neo-Nazis in her home country, the Czech Republic. ((CBC))

Canadian immigration officials say they have found evidence that members of the Czech Republic's Roma minority face persecution and discrimination back home amid increasing violence against them.

Hundreds of Roma have fled to Canada to escape what they claim are frequent attacks at the hands of right-wing groups and skinheads.

The Immigration and Refugee Board sent two immigration officers to the Czech Republic in March to gather background and help process the rising number of asylum claims.

The officers visited 24 government and non-government organizations, and conducted interviews with more than 30 experts and professionals.

In a report released Wednesday, the immigration officers said they found that at times, Roma are not protected by the government and often face discrimination from local police, despite programs aimed at improving relations between authorities and socially excluded communities.

Some of those interviewed asserted that Czech police tend to view Roma as criminals, rather than victims of crime, while a mutual distrust has led to many Roma refusing to co-operate with Czech authorities.

The Czech constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of national, racial or ethnic background.

In May 2008, President Vaclav Klaus vetoed an anti-discrimination bill intended to harmonize Czech legislation with that of the European Union, saying the legislation was "poor, counterproductive and unnecessary," and dealt with subjects "already covered sufficiently under Czech law."

'Hey Gypsy, today you will die'

The true levels of racially motivated violence and discrimination against Roma are difficult to measure, due to Czech legislation that prohibits collecting information on an ethnic basis, those interviewed by the immigration officials said.  

Of those now living in Canada who spoke to CBC News, several said they left because they feared for their lives.

At a shelter just outside Toronto, Zaneta Gananova lifted up her shirt to show why she fled the Czech Republic.  

Gananova, a young mother of six, revealed two swastikas, purple scars that she says were carved into her body two months ago by a group of skinheads.  

"It was very bad. I didn't want to go out," she said. "I was afraid for my children, and for my life. I thought they would kill me."

Marek Polak, 24, said he no longer worries when he heads outside to take a walk in his new home in Hamilton. When he was 17 and was out for a walk in Prague, he said, his life changed.  

"And I turn around and I saw four skinheads, like around me," he said. "They started to say to me, 'Hey Gypsy, today you will die,'" Polak said, using a once-common term for a Rom.

Polak said the men threw him to the ground, then punched him and kicked him, all the while yelling racial slurs. He ended up in hospital for a week. His mother, Anna Polakova, decided to move her family to Canada two months ago.

"It was a very hard decision for us. We had our life in the Czech Republic," she said. "But when they beat my son, and the continued attacks in the years that followed, I knew we had to leave."

Nearly 1,100 Czech Roma have claimed refugee status in Canada in the first four months of this year. The number of asylum claims has shot up since the fall of 2007, when Ottawa dropped the requirement for travellers from the Czech Republic to get a visa before their trip to Canada.

On a visit to the Czech Republic in May, Prime Minister Stephen Harper threatened that Canada may bring back the travel visa requirement to avoid a further influx of asylum seekers.

Worries about immigration crackdown

Paul St. Clair, who runs the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, criticized the board for sending the investigators in the first place, arguing that each case should be evaluated on its individual merits.

St. Clair told CBC News he worries that immigration officials are already cracking down on refugee claims by requesting applicants provide evidence of alleged abuse.

"They want police reports or medical records, which are very difficult to obtain, especially if you go to a police station and the police is refusing to write anything down," he said. "What are you gonna bring?"

But in the meantime, he said, he was satisfied with the number of Roma asylum applications being accepted.

"Obviously, the refugee board is recognizing that the situation in Czech Republic warrants to give Roma asylum in Canada for what they suffer there," he said.

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh said the IRB's decision to investigate flies in the face of the practice of an independent judiciary.

"For the IRB to say to you that it should be an acceptable practice for a quasi-judicial body to determine its own facts is absolute hogwash," he told CBC News on Thursday. 

"I just believe that it colours the whole process that may deal with those 1,000 claimants."

The office of federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the minister was travelling to Europe and not immediately available to comment on the report.

Toronto-area shelters stretched thin

Most Roma asylum applicants in Canada have settled in and around the Greater Toronto Area while their cases are reviewed. Many of them have ended up in shelters, which housing officials said has put a strain on shelter systems in the region.

Meredith Burpee, supervisor of community housing for Peel Region, told CBC News that in her area, two former hotels being used as shelters are nearly full.

"There have been two occasions where we are simply full and we have redirected people to central intake in Toronto because we don't have the capacity to take any more families," she said.

The refugee board is scheduled to release another report next month focusing on the extent of the abuse suffered by the Roma in the Czech Republic.