Why do Roma living in Europe flee to Canada? Is life that bad there?

Of interest:

In Romania, Laurentiu David Cobzaru was called the “tigan” or the untouchable.

Other kids in his neighbourhood weren’t allowed to play with him and his siblings. In school, he and other Roma children were made to sit at the back of the class because of their dark skin.

And that label as an outcast, “Zigeuner” in German, would follow him even after he moved from Bucharest to Berlin, where he found himself the target of the neo-Nazis yet again.

“I was called a ‘gypsy’ and was beaten and pushed down by others my whole life,” says Cobzaru, who arrived in Toronto in November for asylum with his wife, Claudia, and daughter, Eva, after he was attacked by four skinheads in Berlin on his way home after work.

While Canada is a beacon of hope for many Roma seeking protection, equality and a better future, the 39-year-old man says few people understand why he and his people come all the way for asylum from Europe where biases and discrimination against his people still run deep.

And Cobzaru can sympathize with the desperation of Florin Iordache and his wife, Cristina Monalisa Zenaida Iordache, who drowned with their two infants trying to cross into the U.S. by boat near Akwesasne, Que., after learning of their imminent deportation from Canada to Romania.

Cobzaru could see himself in their shoes.

“My heart is broken with all the Romani people who are coming here from all over Europe trying to find a society where they are accepted,” said Cobzaru. “We are coming to Canada because we want to break the chain of discrimination. We don’t want our children to suffer like we did.”

Historically called gypsies, a derogatory label, Roma have endured centuries of discriminatory treatment and slavery in Europe. With a population of 10 to 12 million, it’s the largest minority group in the continent and within the European Union.

Back in 2005, a non-binding pan-European initiative called The Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched to address the discrimination they faced and improve the life of “the world’s most populous marginalized community” so they could share equal opportunities as others.

In 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues sounded the alarm over the surge of intimidation and aggression directed at Roma and urged states to do more to prevent hate crimes and incitement to violence against the group so they can live “without fear and stigmatization.”

Last year, in passing a resolution to “urgently” address the conditions of Roma people, the European Parliament said deep-rooted structural and institutional “anti-Gypsyism” continues to exist at all levels of EU society, whether it’s in their access to employment, housing, education, health care, protection or public services.

It referred to surveys that found only one in four Roma age 16 or older was employed; 80 per cent of Roma lived below their country’s at-risk-of-poverty threshold; every third Roma lived in housing without tap water and one in 10 without electricity; every third Roma child had family going hungry at least once a month; and almost half of Roma of the usual school age did not attend.

In many places, said the report, Roma students were segregated in schools; disproportionate numbers of them were also often placed in “special” schools for children with intellectual disabilities.

“Poverty and lack of access to basic services has a considerable impact on children’s physical, mental and emotional development, and increases their chances of lagging behind in all aspects of their adult life,” it noted.

Amid the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine, anti-Roma racism was reported by Ukrainian Roma, who face discrimination in trying to access protection and humanitarian aid.

Faced with blatant discrimination and adversity, Cobzaru said many young Roma are discouraged and made to give up, because they know they don’t get rewarded for their hard work and won’t get the same opportunities.

In grade school, Cobzaru said, his teachers would give him lower grades even though he had the same answers in tests and assignments as non-Roma classmates. Whenever there was an issue between him and others, he was always the one who got punished, he said.

He was one year short of completing an early childhood education program when he decided to quit, because he couldn’t put up with hostile instructors who would be watching him over his shoulder during exams, looking for cheating behaviour.

But his mother, who can’t read or write, recognized the importance of education and encouraged him to return to school. He ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in Romani language and later a master’s degree in counselling, a rare feat among his peers.

“My mother always prayed on her knees for us to achieve our goals. I got my strength from her,” said Cobzaru, who worked in Berlin as a teacher and social worker for newcomers from eastern Europe.

Gina Csanyi-Robah, co-founder of the Canadian Romani Alliance, said little has improved for the Roma and factors still very much exist to drive them out of Europe.

“I still see the same sad headlines around segregation in schools, the fight for compensation by victims of forced sterilization, police brutality and the lack of accountability for deaths of Roma,” said Csanyi-Robah, whose family came to Canada from Hungary, after the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution; they worked in tobacco farms in Hamilton.

“The human rights are on paper, but they are not in action.”

Although Roma can blend in more easily in Canada’s multicultural fabric, she said they have continued to face entrenched systemic biases especially from more established Canadians.

Back in 1997, the Star reported that Czech Roma refugee claimants staying at a Kingston Road motel in Toronto were confronted by protesters waving swastikas and placards scrawled with “Canada Is Not A Trash Can” and “Honk If You Hate Gypsies.”

Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, visa requirements were imposed on Eastern European countries amid a surge of Roma refugees arriving here. In response to protest by the EU, those conditions were lifted but replaced by new rules to restrict access to asylum, which advocates said were meant to target Roma refugees on grounds that their claims were bogus.

The Canadian courts later ruled against the new regime, but Csanyi-Robah said Canada then introduced other air travel measures to keep potential Roma refugees from boarding planes. The number of Roma asylum claims declined.

“I feel like the Canadian government has an ongoing campaign of discriminating against the Roma community. They seem to lack knowledge about the situations that Roma have faced historically in Europe and are still facing right now,” she said.

According to the Immigration and Refugee Board, claims from Roma-refugee producing countries — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia — fluctuated with travel requirement changes in Canada.

The claims from these countries surged to 2,150 in 2018, the year after Ottawa lifted visa requirement against Romania, but it dropped by half to 1,054 right before the pandemic in 2019. Last year, it was down to 919, with more than half of the claimants being Romanians.

Prof. Sean Rehaag of Osgoode Hall Law School said acceptance rates for Roma seeking asylum have risen over the years, which he attributed to the improved quality of legal representation and recognition among refugee judges of the level of persecution and inadequate state protection Roma claimants face. In the past five years, he said, success rates have hovered around 70 per cent.

What critics have failed to recognize is that mobility rights within the EU are tied to employment, Rehaag said: Roma face systemic barriers in accessing quality education and hence the labour market, let alone the fact that residents in one EU country can’t make an asylum claim in another member state.

“Overall, the discrimination and mistreatment seems to be continuing,” said Rehaag, director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies. “If anything, in some countries, it’s a doubling down on the kind of racist rhetoric coming out of the far-right countries.”

Source: Why do Roma living in Europe flee to Canada? Is life that bad there?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Why do Roma living in Europe flee to Canada? Is life that bad there?

  1. Ely Shemer says:

    Cool stuff!.
    This is what I found out in your post
    This article sheds light on the struggles and discrimination faced by the Roma minority in Europe and how they seek asylum in Canada for a better future. The personal story of Laurentiu David Cobzaru and his determination to overcome the adversities he faced is inspiring. It’s important to acknowledge the ongoing discrimination and systemic barriers faced by the Roma community and work towards equality and inclusion.
    Thanks, Ely Shemer

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