The federal government denies it’s behind the problems faced by Roma travellers, saying it’s up to airlines to decide who boards flights to Canada.
Ottawa is being accused of preventing Roma travellers from boarding Canada-bound flights and denying them the possibility of seeking asylum here.
Since the end of last year, advocates and lawyers say a slew of Roma passengers from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — all currently visa-exempted countries — have reported being stopped from boarding flights to Canada via transit points in England, Poland, Belgium and Germany.
The federal government denies that it is to blame. Ottawa says that while it provides assistance and advice to airlines, it’s ultimately up to the airlines themselves to decide who boards flights to Canada, and that all travellers coming to the country are subjected to scrutiny and can be denied entry.
Airlines found to have carried an improperly documented foreign national to Canada will be fined up to $3,200 per passenger and are liable for additional removal and medical costs, according to the government’s manual on the obligations of transporters.
“Ninety per cent of these travellers have valid plane tickets, the electronic travel authorization (eTA) issued by Canada and an invitation letter from their friends and relatives in Canada,” said Toronto settlement worker Paul St. Clair, who has helped many in the community write up their invitations.
“The interdiction is happening everywhere. I have had 50 Roma families in Toronto coming to us in the last six months, asking me what to do about it, how they can help their relatives come to visit.”
While advocates including St. Clair agree that many Roma, who were once known as Gypsies, may intend to come to Canada for asylum, they say Canada cannot stop legitimate refugees from travelling and accessing its asylum system if they have the proper documentation to visit the country and solid grounds to support their need for Canada’s protection.
Last year, asylum-seekers from three major source countries of Roma refugees in Canada all had acceptance rates over 50 per cent — Slovakia, 74.6 per cent; Hungary, 66.9 per cent; and the Czech Republic, 56.5 per cent, according to data from the Immigration and Refugee Board. The overall acceptance rate for refugees to Canada was 63 per cent.
“We had people already on the plane being taken off the plane and some were stopped at checkpoints. They are told Canada doesn’t want them,” said Toronto immigration lawyer George Kubes, who said he is aware of some 30 such cases in the past month from his former Roma clients in Toronto.
“They may end up filing a refugee claim here, but if they are real refugees, they have every right to make the claim when they get here.”
The accusation against Canadian border officials is not new. The Canadian Romani Alliance has complained about Roma travellers being denied since Canada lifted visa requirements against Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, after which asylum claims soared.
Last week, Ottawa took its first step to ease the travel requirements for Romanians and Bulgarians. Both countries have large Roma populations.
Visitors from those two countries are now only required to obtain an electronic travel authorization online, instead of a visa, if they have held a Canadian visitor visa in the past decade or currently hold a valid United States visa. The visa requirement against them will be fully removed Dec. 1.
Gina Csanyi-Robah of the Canadian Romani Alliance said the problem of Roma travellers being prevented from coming to Canada seemed to have improved after media reports in 2015 highlighted the issue.
She wondered if the renewed reports from Roma travellers have anything to do with the planned removal of the visa requirement for Bulgaria and Romania.
“Screening passengers is one big way to stop refugees from coming,” said Csanyi-Roba. “If they won’t need a visa to come to Canada, I won’t be surprised many Roma will try to find safety here given the persecution they face in those countries. It is going to be a challenge in terms of how the Canadian government is going to address the situation.”
Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson Nicholas Dorion said the agency does not have statistics on travellers denied boarding to Canada from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“CBSA liaison officers provide training and advice to airlines and local authorities on the documentation that passengers require when travelling to Canada by air and assist with the interception of those who are improperly documented,” he said.
“While the CBSA provides guidance and support to commercial transportation companies to help them meet their legal obligations, it is ultimately the decision of the transportation company to either allow the passenger to board or to deny them boarding based on the documentation provided by the passenger.”
All travellers to Canada, he added, are subject to scrutiny and may still be denied boarding should their travel documentation be deemed insufficient, including those in possession of an electronic travel authorization.
William Bila, president of La Voix des Rroms, a group fighting for Roma rights in France, said he is disappointed in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
“This is a risk we all have to take every time we buy a ticket. If you travel in sizable group, if you are noticeably Romani in your appearance, depending on your accent, the language you speak. Any combination of these elements makes you a potential target for racial profiling,” said Bila.
“It is anti-gyspysism. There is no other logical explanation for this behaviour. When rule of law applies to others but not to you, sometimes you get used to being abused by the authorities. Other times, you decide to fight to prevent this from happening again. It is not fair. It is a long and arduous fight.”