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Czech Prejudice — and TV — Fuel Gypsy Migration to Canada

White supremacists marching near Toronto/Toronto Star Photo via CP
Toronto Star Photo via CP  
White supremacists marched outside a hoteal near Toronto to protest the arrival of Czech Gypsy immigrants in Canada.

By Howard Schneider and Christine Spolar
Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 1, 1997; Page A23

Karolina Bonomova was frightened when she heard that a gang of Canadian skinheads had gathered outside the Lido Hotel near Toronto, temporary home to some of the hundreds of Gypsies who have fled the Czech Republic for Canada in recent months.

She said the reminder of her homeland, which she and others left to avoid beatings and harassment by such neo-Nazi groups, was both eerie and in conflict with the peaceful image of Canada that has taken root among the Romany people, as the Gypsies refer to themselves.

But what happened next, she said, explains why so many of her people have left their homes for Toronto. To her surprise and relief, the police arrived within minutes. They positioned themselves between the Gypsies and the skinheads and stayed until the possibility of trouble eased. In Prague, said the former university student, police would have watched from the sidelines until the skinheads administered their ritual round of kicks and punches.

"I am very hopeful that the Canadian police don't react the way the Czech police react," Bonomova, 28, said through an interpreter. The Czech police "don't react until the skins beat us up. . . . I hope here that I will find safety, . . . that [people] will understand our problem so we can start a new life."

Bonomova arrived in Toronto last May with her daughter and other relatives as part of a surge of Gypsy immigration that has taken Canadian officials by surprise and embarrassed the Czech Republic's emerging democracy.

About 550 Gypsies have arrived in Canada this year, claiming status as refugees from racial persecution in the Czech Republic. The numbers are still small, particularly for Canada, a country that accepts approximately 30,000 refugees among 200,000 annual immigrants.

But the number of Gypsies has still been enough to fill Toronto homeless shelters and force local social service agencies to house them in suburban hotels. It also has forced Canadian immigration officials to puzzle through a gathering refugee wave apparently started by word of mouth but stoked by a Czech television documentary, aired Aug. 7, that portrayed Canada as a promised land of spacious housing, plentiful welfare, jobs for the asking and trips to Niagara Falls.

"All you Gypsies, if you have money, jump on a plane and come over," said a woman identified on the Nova TV show as Margit Bangova, surrounded by children and speaking Czech. "There you will be hungry and pushed aside. And you'll always be judged. . . . Here, you will live like kings, like the Canadians."

Nova reporter Josef Klima, in an interview in Prague, acknowledged that the documentary erred on the positive side in portraying Canada and excluded comments from some Gypsies who said their main reason for emigrating was Canada's reputation for rich social programs -- not the type of persecution in the Czech Republic that would qualify them as refugees.

Gypsies have been arriving steadily in Canada at least since last year, after the country lifted its visa requirement for Czech travelers. The Nova TV images may quicken the pace. In an interview in Toronto last week, Slovak-born lawyer George Kubes, who was featured on the documentary and is representing several hundred of the new arrivals, said he thinks the migration has just begun.

"The flood has not even started yet," Kubes said. "Whole towns are eyeing this situation."

Concerned that he may be right, Canada took the unusual step of sending a delegate from its embassy in Prague to conduct television interviews and speak with Gypsy groups. The envoy was not, as Canadian diplomats often do, spreading the gospel that Canada heads the 1997 U.N. list of national economic and social development. The mission, rather, was to remind potential immigrants that it's hard to find a job if you don't speak English or French, that housing is expensive and hard to acquire and that no one will greet you at the airport with a welfare check.

"Nobody is waiting for them with open arms. Nobody is giving them money. There are no jobs waiting for them. That's the message we're trying to get across," said Terrance Mooney, Canada's acting charge d'affaires in Prague. "What we've been attempting to do here is bring some truth to the matter."

It is a truth, however, that varies with perspective. A nomadic people who originated in India and are currently scattered in pockets throughout Europe, the Gypsies have long been at the bottom of the continent's social and economic scale. Persecuted and killed by the Nazis in World War II, they still suffer widespread discrimination. Employment, even restaurant service, is denied them in some areas, and they are frequently the target of beatings and violence that some courts are reluctant to punish.

In the Nova TV documentary, the tension between Czech and Gypsy residents is clear. In Ostrava, an eastern Czech town where many Gypsies now live, Mayor Liana Janackova said she wants to help them buy plane tickets so they would leave. "If more Romany leave, we could pull down their housing" in a decrepit area of town, she said.

Human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Czech Republic for not doing more to eliminate discrimination against Gypsies, which they say has grown since the fall of Communist rule and the end of laws designed to force their assimilation into the Czech majority.

From that perspective, Canada looks pretty good, welfare payments or not. Canada allows anyone to apply to become a refugee; following a U.N. convention, it accepts those who are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views. Kubes said Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has ruled on 22 Gypsies' cases this year and that all have qualified.

On the other hand, the Czech Republic has taken steps, and is pledging more, to protect a prominent minority in a country whose population is largely homogenous. A citizenship law widely viewed as discriminatory against Slovak-born Gypsies has been relaxed. And as the country positions itself for NATO membership in 1999, the government is preparing to announce a new policy to aid its approximately 300,000 Gypsies.

A draft of the new policy points candidly to some of the same abuses noted by such groups as Human Rights Watch, and it appeals to Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus to address the problem so the country can continue its economic progress and integration into the European and world economies.

Whether the predicted flood of Romany refugees to Canada materializes, Gypsies on both sides of the Atlantic say they have been educated about the ways of both countries. They now know Canada is not perfect -- and not just because of skinheads.

As the summer's arrivals trickled in, Canadian police and diplomatic officials talked publicly about the threat of increased crime the Gypsies might bring, and immigration officials are investigating whether clerks at Toronto's Pearson International Airport so discouraged some Gypsy families that they waited at the airport for the next flight home.

But Czech Gypsies also learned that the lure of Canada can be a handy political tool in their homeland. On a mud path outside Ostrava, a group of Gypsies gathered to discuss their problems, shouting and cursing about their treatment in Europe.

"Why don't we like it here? They won't serve us coffee in restaurants. We're afraid to go out at night. . . . But do you know what's interesting?" said Helena Sivakova. "We've been having these problems for 40 years and nobody's cared. Only when we want to go to Canada, all of a sudden people pay attention."

Schneider reported from Toronto, Spolar from Prague and Ostrava.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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