Roma refugees victims of systemic discrimination in Canada, new report finds

Hungarian Roma who came to Canada claiming refugee status encountered unfair treatment by lawyers, politicians and government officials, according to a new study prepared by a team of legal researchers.

Many claimants faced bias and unfair treatment

The report found that of 11,000 claims for refugee status filed in Canada between 2008 and 2012, only 8.6 per cent were successful. (Adi Piclisan/Reuters)

Hungarian Roma who came to Canada claiming refugee status encountered unfair treatment by lawyers, politicians and government officials, according to a new study prepared by a team of legal researchers in Toronto. 

The report, entitled No Refuge: Hungarian Romani Refugee Claimants in Canada, is being released later today by a group refugee law experts from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. The group examined more than 11,000 refugee claimants in Canada between 2008 and 2012 and found that only 8.6 per cent of those claims were successful while more than half were abandoned or withdrawn.

The report was prepared by Sean Rehaag, a law professor, along with Julianna Beaudoin and Jennifer Danch. 

​While international agencies were documenting an increase in cases of persecution of Roma in Hungary, Rehaag said the Canadian government was painting a picture of Roma as "bogus" refugee claimants and petty thieves who were only coming to Canada to take advantage of the welfare system.

"Cracking down on alleged abuse of the refugee-determination system was a major policy objective of the government and Hungarian Roma were repeatedly held up as the prime example of this alleged abuse," the report states.

Rehaag said the government's policy set a dangerous precedent.

"If we send people back to face persecution, then we are breaking international law and so the consequences are serious for claimants and for the country," he said.

The report also cites cases of Refugee Review Board members trading information and using a cookie-cutter approach by "copying long passages from reasons denying other Hungarian Romani cases rather than writing unique reasons engaging with the specific circumstances of each case."

'Luck of the draw'

Data also shows that Roma claimants faced a "luck of the draw" situation in which some review board members approved as many as half of all Roma claimants while others rejected every Roma case they heard.

In separate interviews, stakeholders told the researchers that they believed some review board members avoided granting Roma refugee status because they felt they would not be re-appointed by the government. "It sent a message to the Board Members that if you want to be renewed, you toe the party line," the report stated.

"The problems are systemic and the failures are systemic," Rehaag said in an interview with CBC News. "Those claimants were entitled to access a fair refugee determination process. They were entitled not to be vilified by politicians seeking to buttress their 'get-tough on queue jumpers' line."

Rehaag also cites cases where several lawyers took on hundreds of Roma refugee cases and were paid by Legal Aid but failed to adequately represent their clients. In some cases, documents were not filed before the hearings, their narratives were not complete and clients were not properly prepared. In some cases the lawyers even failed to show up for the hearings.

Little hope for appeals

One Toronto lawyer, Viktor Hohots, handled more than 500 cases yet of those, only six were successful and granted refugee status. Hohots is one of several lawyers now facing disciplinary hearings before the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Hohots admitted to professional misconduct at a hearing last month and will face a penalty hearing in May.

Almost all of the Roma whose cases were studied either withdrew or were deported since they had little or no opportunity to appeal under the law. Rehaag hopes the federal government and other institutions will learn from his research and make changes to prevent such widespread discrimination from occurring in the future.

"Canada still has some distance to go to fully embrace respect for the human rights of those seeking refuge from hatred, racism and xenophobia," the report states. "The country must do better."