Hungarian Roma refugee claimants targeted in CBSA report

A Canada Border Services Agency report completed last year warns of an "organized" effort to exploit Canada's social safety net by a surging number of Hungarian refugee claimants.

Roma community and refugee advocates call report 'racial profiling'

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, left, is greeted by Hungary's Minister of Human Resources Zoltan Balog in Budapest on Oct. 8. Kenney raised the issue of Roma refugee claimants with Hungarian government officials during his visit. (Imre Foldi/MTI/Associated Press)

An intelligence report completed last year by the Canada Border Services Agency warns of "significant" levels of welfare fraud and other crimes committed by a surging number of Hungarian refugee claimants to Canada.

The report says many of the claims appear to be part of an organized effort to exploit Canada's social safety net.

Refugee advocates and leaders from the Roma community say the report is an example of unfair racial profiling that exaggerates the level of crime and fraud relative to the Roma population, and furthers negative stereotypes based on ethnicity.

The partially redacted report, obtained by CBC News, draws largely on an intelligence operation dubbed Project Sara, which investigated allegations of fraud and criminality among some Hungarian claimants in 2011, most of whom claimed to be ethnic Roma, and the effect of their activities on social services and communities in the Greater Toronto Area. 

Commissioned by the head of border services for the region, the report also summarizes data provided by several police departments in southern Ontario, provincial corrections officials, financial institutions and the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, which is responsible for issuing welfare cheques.

Among its findings, the report concludes that Hungarian Roma refugee claimants pose a "significant" risk of committing crimes after they arrive in Canada.

"The information received is not all encompassing, nor is it a depiction of all members of the community, however it serves to demonstrate that there is significant criminal activity occurring within this group."

The report cites several documented examples, including:

  • Repeat claims, and claims with altered or falsified names.
  • Credit and debit card fraud and the theft of cheques.
  • Failed claimants continuing to receive benefits after being deported.
  • One case of human trafficking — called the largest in Canadian history — in which 12 Hungarian nationals were charged.

The report also mentions cases where people arrive to claim refugee status and then exit Canada in possession of thousands of dollars in cash as well as goods, including electronics and laptop computers. The report makes no conclusions about the source of the money and goods.

The report does not indicate what proportion of refugee claimants are broadly implicated in such crimes or suspected of crime.

Report denounced as 'racial profiling'

Gina Csanyi-Robah, executive director of Toronto's Roma Community Centre, called the report "classic racial profiling" and the latest example in a flood of negative stereotyping of the Roma in Canada.

"There are a lot of unsubstantiated allegations in this report, very detrimental allegations that are in this report that are misleading," she said. "The vast majority of Roma who have come here seeking asylum in Canada have tried their absolute best to build better lives here and become a part of our society ... not at all to take advantage of the system."

Csanyi-Robah said she's concerned such reports will influence decisions about Roma claimants before the Immigration and Refugee Board.

"There's a huge gap between the reality and the fiction," she said. "You're walking into the room where people already are believing what they're hearing, that you likely are not a bona fide refugee, and that you likely came here just to see what you can get from Canada."

In an email, a spokesperson for the border agency said it is not singling out the Roma.

"The CBSA prepares a variety of intelligence reports, based on changing migration trends that significantly impact Canada’s immigration program," the spokesperson said in the email to CBC News.

But refugee expert Peter Showler argues the report provides little or no evidence for its conclusions.

"It is a badly skewed document," says the former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board. "It really starts with the presumption that they're fraudulent or invalid claims."

No evidence of organized crime

Showler notes the report documents a tendency of Hungarian claimants to arrive in a family group, and then interprets it as evidence people are trying to get more money from the welfare system (families receive more benefits). He says they could be travelling as a family because the entire family was threatened by persecution, something that has been well documented in countries, such as Hungary, where the Roma face severe discrimination.

The report says there is no evidence that organized crime is involved, but adds "there are indications that once in Canada, Hungarians are working together with other members of their community in the commission of serious offences. They are proving adept at manipulating Canadian systems to obtain the greatest possible financial benefit before returning to Hungary, either voluntarily or with the assistance of the CBSA."

Showler says the report simply doesn't prove it.

"It does make allegations that are completely unfounded.… It does make an allegation that there is a significant amount of minor criminality that occurs. And it offers no data whatsoever to support that allegation."

The report was spurred by a surge in Hungarian nationals claiming refugee status since 2008, when the old visa restrictions were lifted. In 2011 alone, 4,442 Hungarian nationals entered a claim for refugee protection in Canada — representing 17 per cent of the country's total refugee claims that year.

Showler points out that of those claims that received a full hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board, 20 per cent were accepted as legitimate refugees.