Nicole O’Reilly Thu, 12 Jan 2012
Human trafficking case puts spotlight on refugee system
An ongoing human trafficking case in Hamilton has sparked sharp criticism of Canada’s immigration and refugee system.
The case prosecutor, assistant Crown attorney Toni Skarica blames the removal of Hungarian visitors’ visa requirements for providing “the opportunity for the expansion of the … criminal organization into Canada,” he wrote in a court document.
He denounced the alleged criminal organization as “an invasion of evil,” from Hungary.“They came into Canada virtually unmolested and set up shop … something has to be done to prevent that in the future,” Skarica said in court.
It’s the largest human trafficking case in Canadian history.
Since the RCMP issued arrest warrants more than 13 months ago, 13 members of an alleged Hungarian Roma criminal organization have been arrested.
A youth pleaded guilty and was deported in September and Lajos Domotor — a “latecomer” to the organization — pleaded guilty to human trafficking and criminal organization charges Tuesday. He is dying of stomach cancer and will spend up to 10½ months in custody before being deported back to Hungary.
There are 10 accused who remain in jail awaiting trial later this year. None can be named because of a publication ban.
The RCMP have statements from 19 alleged victims, who describe being forced to hand over their documentation, live in their captors’ basements and work for little or no pay.
Skarica and RCMP say the alleged criminal organization would recruit people from Hungary, pay for their airfare to Canada, have them claim refugee status, sign up for welfare and then work like slaves.
During Lajos Domotor’s sentencing Justice Stephen Glithero expressed shock that this criminal organization “came over here without any apparent challenge and set up shop.”
In 2001, Canada required Hungarians to apply for a visa before entering the country. This was in response to the large number of Hungarian refugee claims, explains Skarica in the court document obtained by the Hamilton Spectator.
But when Hungary entered the European Union, Canada lifted that visa requirement in March 2008. Since then, Hungarians have been flocking to Canada to claim refugee status, according to statistics released from Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.
In 2007, 34 Hungarians claimed refugee status, and of the cases finalized, 43 per cent were accepted as refugees. But in 2009, for instance, 2,423 Hungarians claimed refugee status. The refugee board was only able to get through 268, of which only 1 per cent were accepted.
Most cases are withdrawn or simply abandoned without notice or explanation.
Hungary went from not making the list of top 10 countries that refugee claimants come from to ranking second highest in 2009 and topping all countries in 2010.
In the first half of 2011, Hungary continued to dominate, with 1,600 refugee claimants referred to the board.
While the government doesn’t further break down the reasons people claim refugee status, anecdotally it’s understood many of the claimants coming from Hungary say they are persecuted because they are Roma, said Imre Helyes, head of the consular section of the Hungarian embassy in Ottawa.
Most of the victims and all of the accused in the ongoing human trafficking case are Roma.
The Roma population of Hungary has long claimed persecution and there is clearly racial tension between Hungarian nationals and the gypsy group. However, Helyes said he believes most claimants are simply trying to abuse Canada’s immigration and refugee system.
Kenney’s office declined an interview request by The Spectator for this article, deferring to a Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson who would not say whether the government is considering changing the visa requirement.
“We are concerned about the number of asylum claims coming from the EU, and in particular Hungary, as there has been a significant increase,” CIC spokesperson Nancy Caron said in an email.
The government passed the Balanced Refugee Reform Act last June, which makes a number of changes to the refugee claim system. Caron said when the act comes into effect this June, the government expects claimants to have their cases heard in a matter of weeks — it currently takes months.
Helyes said he believes these changes — particularly if cases are heard much faster — will be a deterrent to false asylum seekers.
Human trafficking is in no way only a Hungarian or Canadian issue. But it is one Hungary is focusing on, he said.
In Hungary, this starts with stricter law enforcement to “suppress” this activity, he said, adding that the country is also working on intelligence-gathering that it shares with allies.
But there are key differences in the justice systems of Canada and Hungary.
Hungary is aware of the human trafficking issue and authorities are committed to working with Canada, he said. Hungarian authorities have been working with the RCMP on the ongoing Hamilton case.
But to change the visa requirements would have much larger political implications.
A visa-free regime is a way of deepening the relationship between countries, Helyes said. But he also recognizes it comes with responsibility.
“Hungary has been very clear … firmly stating that Hungary is ready and committed to co-operate with the Canadian side and/or take other measures if necessary.”
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