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No Rest For Gypsies Claiming Persecution In The Czech Republic, They Find No Safe Haven In Canada

Hundreds of Czech Gypsies drawn to Canada by a TV broadcast portraying it as a country of prosperity and tolerance instead have encountered the same kind of hostility they were fleeing.

Instead of the warm reception they anticipated, they have faced a protest by skinheads, lengthy criminal background checks and a cold shoulder from long-established Czech immigrants who challenge the Gypsies’ claims of persecution in the Czech Republic.

Since Canada dropped visa requirements for Czechs last year, more than 1,000 Czech Gypsies - they call themselves Roma - have flown to Toronto. More than half have come since early August, when a Czech TV documentary created the impression that refugee status and welfare benefits in Canada were almost guaranteed.

About half of the arriving Roma have been permitted to apply for refugee status, a process that can take months. The rest are awaiting security clearance.

George Kubes, an immigration attorney handling many of the refugee claims, said many of his clients were persecuted in the Czech Republic. One young woman quit a university in Prague because of daily harassment and four severe beatings, he said.

In another case, Kubes said, parents of an 18-year-old who nearly died of a stab wound went to police with complaints against his skinhead attackers, but police instead sought to charge the youth with assault.

He said his Roma clients would not speak to a reporter because they feared reprisals against relatives still in the Czech Republic.

About 650 Czech Roma have been placed by Toronto’s emergency housing service in motels set aside for use as hostels. A dozen skinheads protested outside one of the motels in August, but no attacks have been reported.

Of more immediate concern to Kubes and his clients is hostility on the part of the established Czech and Slovak community in Toronto.

Two leaders of the Czech and Slovak Association of Canada wrote to federal immigration officials to praise Czech anti-discrimination efforts and question whether the Roma should be granted refugee status.

“It would be unfortunate if we accept as refugees claimants coming from an environment not distinctly different from Canada’s, while so many potential refugees from various parts of the world are in real danger,” said the letter from Josef Cermak and Milos Suchma.

But Cermak, who entered Canada in 1949 as a refugee when Communists took over Czechoslovakia, admitted in an interview that Czechs and Roma have a difficult relationship.

“Most Czechs can’t get used to the lifestyle of the Gypsies,” he said. “Many Czechs would be happy to see most of them go.”

Kubes said he has requested a police investigation into whether the letter from Cermak’s group violates Canadian laws against hate crimes.

“The Gypsies are shocked,” Kubes said Thursday. … “The hatred has followed them here. This is exactly the same as if in 1938 the German immigrant aid (group) was saying don’t let German Jews in because they don’t have a case.”

Kubes said at least a dozen of his Roma clients were treated badly by Canadian officials at the Toronto airport. He said they were told through interpreters that they were unwanted here or would be forced to sleep on the streets.

Kubes said all Roma arrivals were being subject to criminal background checks, and many with no police records were still held back from initiating refugee claims, and thus from applying for work permits and health coverage.

Rene Mercier, an immigration department spokesman, said the complaints of mistreatment are being investigated. He said the department ran criminal background checks on some of the Czech Roma and found that 57 percent had police records. The department is trying to verify these records, he said.

In the Czech Republic, Canadian officials are trying to spread the word that Canada is not perfect, especially for those who can’t compete on the job market. And immigration officials have suggested that Canada could, as a last resort, reinstate visa requirements for Czechs.

At the Czech Embassy in Ottawa, the controversy has been a headache. Its press attache, Nora Jurkovicova, wrote to the Toronto Star this week, insisting that the Czech Republic is not “a country of apartheid and persecution.”