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World: Canada Seen As 'Easy Mark' For Would-Be Refugees

Ottawa, 15 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Canada may re-instate visa requirements for Czech citizens in an effort to stop a growing flood of Gypsies claiming refugee status when they enter the country.

Canada removed the requirement for a visa for Czech nationals in April of last year. Citizens of most other countries in Central and East Europe and the former Soviet Union are allowed into Canada without visas as well.

The current wave of would-be refugees came about as the result of a television program shown in the Czech Republic which depicted Canada as an easy place in which to obtain asylum, especially on the basis of racial discrimination.

The Czech national airline - CSA - confirms that it has sold three times as many tickets to Canada as normal since the program was broadcast last week and that flights from Prague to Toronto and Montreal are full until the end of October. British Airways also says that it is seeing a major increase in seats on flights from Prague to Canada.

A spokesman for the Czech Embassy in Ottawa, Nora Jurkovicova, says her government has taken "official steps to prevent discrimination and harassment" against the Gypsies but adds that "of course, there are always going to be individual acts of racism in any country."

The Canadian immigration official at the Embassy in Prague, Jacques Beaulne, said he was planning to meet with leaders of the Czech Gypsy community to try to correct the message conveyed in the program broadcast by Nova-TV.

The Canadian Embassy says it has been handling about 200 calls a day from Gypsies, many of them from the eastern Czech city of Ostrava. Beaulne says some of the callers believe - wrongly - that Canada has a special asylum program for Gypsies.

Canadian immigration officials in Vienna -- where Czech immigration applications are processed -- are on their way to Prague to clarify Canada's refugee policy.

Immigration spokesman Rene Mercier says there is little that officials in Canada can do to stop Czechs from entering the country because no visas are required. He says that, while there is public money for some refugee claimants waiting for their cases to be heard, each case is decided separately. The refugee claim process, he says, is "a very complicated administrative process and a lot of requirements have to be fulfilled."

Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Valerie Loftle says Canada is considering the re-imposition of visa requirements to stem the tide. She says it is not an option that Canada likes but "it is always an option."

Last year, 189 Czech citizens sought refugee status in Canada. Only three were approved. The rest of the cases are either still pending or the claims were rejected. In the first six months alone of this year, there have been 302 refugee applications. So far, eight have been approved and 38 have been rejected or the applications have been withdrawn. The rest of the cases are still to be decided.

Vera Rooller, editor of a Toronto-based Czech and Slovak-language newspaper Novy Domov -- or New Homeland -- says she doubts Canada will grant refugee status to many of the Gypsies "because of the Czech Republic's good human rights record. Probably, Canada will agree to help a few of them but not all of them. Besides, the Romas would probably not fit in with the Canadian Czech community because of cultural differences."

The Canadian government estimates that there are between 40,000 and 50,000 ethnic Czechs in the country, most of them living in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. A number of Gypsies have been granted asylum in Canada. Just before Christmas last year, a group of 43 people had their applications accepted and they settled in the west coast Canadian city of Vancouver. Since then, there have been a number of reported incidents of harassing telephone calls, children have been kicked or beaten and several Gypsy adults have been attacked.

Canada has long been considered an easy place to obtain refugee status. During the Cold War, people from Communist countries were given automatic asylum if they were able to make it to Canada. The usual route was to book a flight to Cuba or somewhere else in the Americas serviced by Aeroflot or another national airline in the region because the planes stopped in Gander, Newfoundland -- on Canada's east coast -- to refuel.

Once the plane was on the ground, people often claimed refugee status and were processed immediately. That program was discontinued in 1990 and now citizens of those countries have to apply as regular immigrants.

Mercier says that what is happening now is that when Canada lifts visa requirements on a country there "can sometimes be a large increase in the number of refugee claimants because they can enter Canada easily as tourists."

The most recent example, he says, was in 1995 when Canada lifted visa requirements for Chile. Thousands of Chileans arrived seeking asylum. Canada now requires visas from Chilean citizens.

Canada is an attractive destination for many reasons. The country is perceived to be free of racial discrimination. The refugee laws have been quite generous and there are large ethnic communities in Canada. Also, because it neighbors on the United States, refugees who are accepted in Canada find it easier to eventually move to the U.S.

In the television documentary broadcast in the Czech Republic, a Toronto immigration lawyer who speaks Czech and Slovak was interviewed. George Kubas was followed by the television crew and asked about how Gypsies can seek refugee status. In the program, he said he has seen a marked increase in the number of Gypsies seeking asylum in Canada. He says he represents about 40 families claiming refugee status and that, so far, 10 other Gypsy client families have been successful.