TORONTO (Reuters) - Less than four years ago, Viktoria Mohácsi enjoyed the life of an international politician, eating at pricey restaurants in Brussels and winning awards as a human rights activist.
Today, the 38-year old mother of three sleeps on the floor of a one-room basement apartment in Toronto and faces deportation. As a political asylum seeker, she hopes to convince Canada that the life of a former member of the European Parliament could be in danger in a democratic country like Hungary.
She will tell her story at a hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada starting on Tuesday. In a test case for the Canadian government’s new immigration policy that considers nearly all EU countries “safe”, Mohácsi, a Roma, claims she would be in danger of violence from hate groups and persecution by authorities if she went home to Hungary.
If she loses, she will be deported home. If she wins, her case could give hope to other Central and East European asylum seekers from the Roma community who at present are considered by some in Canada to be economic migrants or worse - criminals trying to abuse a generous immigration system.
Canada’s Conservative government tightened its refugee law in December to crack down on what it said was a wave of fake refugee claims from EU nationals trying to take advantage of generous welfare programs. Many of those asylum seekers were Roma. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney singled out Hungary, which has been the top source of asylum seekers in Canada for the past three years, even though Hungarians as EU citizens can travel freely within the bloc.
The Canadian government says that while it wants the country to remain one of the world’s top destinations for refugees, it is being swamped by people who pretend they are escaping persecution. Official figures show Canada has granted asylum to more than 300 Hungarians in the last four years, most of whom, immigration experts say, were likely Roma. The ministry does not comment on individual cases.
The government of Hungary rejected the suggestion that any of its citizens, including Mohácsi, would be in danger in Hungary. “Whilst there is work to be done in combating prejudice against minorities, the safety of a particular community in general is not in question,” a government spokesman said. “If Ms. Mohácsi has evidence of criminal conspiracy by any individuals serving in Hungary’s security forces to violate her constitutional rights, the Government urges her to submit it to the prosecution services,” the government spokesman added.
Mohácsi has long been one of the best known Roma in Hungary. Her rise from sitting in the back of the classroom in a tiny Hungarian village alongside other Roma children to sitting in the semi-circle of the European Parliament, was rapid. At the age of 20, the doe-eyed petite woman became the first female Roma presenter on Hungarian mainstream television before being drawn into politics.
“I was a little sweet gypsy girl that you couldn’t help supporting,” Mohácsi says, speaking in Hungarian in an interview with Reuters in Toronto. “I was lifted up and I succeeded, I got into public life.” She married a man who was director of the Roma Media Center with strong connections to the inner circles of Hungary’s liberal party, Gabor Bernath.
At a time when Hungary’s political elite were under pressure to show that minorities enjoyed full representation, she became a special commissioner at the Ministry of Education working on a program for desegregating schools. By the age of 29, she was a delegate to the European Parliament, the mother of two adopted children and the unofficial “ambassador” of the Roma.
The problems started with a series of violent attacks on the Roma throughout Europe in early 2008. Mohácsi traveled obsessively in Hungary from one crime scene to the next, collecting information. She pushed victims who were reluctant to report crimes out of fear of police prejudice to come forward, and pressed the police to investigate.
She arrived early on a dark February morning in the village of Tatarszentgyorgy where a man and his 5-year-old son were fatally shot as they fled their burning house. An internal police investigation confirmed that the crime scene was not properly secured for hours. She confronted the police when she found out they had reported that the victims died of smoke inhalation and called the head of “cold cases” at the National Investigation Bureau directly.
“When I examined the photographs I saw right away that she was right (that they were shot),” said Lajos Kovacs, the now retired detective whom she called, adding that Mohácsi’s help in cracking the case was “indisputable.”
Two police officers from the unit involved were later disciplined internally. Four people are currently facing trial over a series of attacks on Roma in 2008-2009, including the killing of the man and his son in Tatarszentgyorgy.
The Hungarian government pointed to that and other measures - including banning the paramilitary group, the Hungarian Guard, that vilified the Roma - as evidence that steps have been taken to improve the lot of Roma since the murders.
Echoing officials in Canada, the Hungarian government also said that organized criminals involved in human trafficking were behind a significant number of asylum claims in Canada that were found not to be genuine.
Hungary’s police department did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Soon after she spoke up about the Tatarszentgyorgy case, Mohácsi says, she started receiving threatening emails calling her a “stinking lousy gypsy” and “dirty animal” who was “soon going to die together with the rest of your race.” She sparked criticism when she made a comment that a murdered handball player must have provoked his two Roma killers (who are now in prison for the murder). She requested and received police protection at her home.
A key element in Mohácsi’s argument that she would be in danger from authorities if she returns is her knowledge of a government report on the Bureau of National Security’s handling of the anti-Roma attacks in 2008-2009. The published report from Parliament’s National Security Committee concluded that the secret service had been following the attackers and had extensive information on them years before they went on to commit the serial killings. Part of the report was sealed.
Mohácsi says she did not see the report in full but had conversations about it, including one with the head of the committee that commissioned the report, Jozsef Gulyas.
Gulyas, then a liberal politician and one of the authors of the report, says he sees no reason for any parts of the report to be sealed or for Mohácsi to be afraid and flee the country. Speaking by telephone from Hungary, he said the report did indicate that the mistakes the secret service had made while investigating the Roma attacks were more than simple negligence. But he added: “I never told her authorities actively participated in the events.”
“I agree that it’s not easy for a Roma living in Hungary, but that she claims that her life is at risk is a poetic exaggeration,” said Gulyas.
Canadian Immigration Minister Kenney visited Hungary in October, and afterwards billboards started appearing in the city of Miskolc, home to many Roma, touting the change in Canadian immigration laws, and noting that those without sound claims would be sent home quickly. In the first three months of 2013, asylum claims from Hungary, previously Canada’s top source country for claimants, dropped 98 percent compared to previous years, with just nine Hungarians seeking asylum, according to the immigration ministry.
Mohácsi’s case is being closely watched back home in Hungary, and in other Central and Eastern European countries with significant Roma populations.
Aladar Horvath a leading Roma activist and the first Roma member of the Hungarian Parliament, visited Toronto this spring to serve as an expert witness in another asylum case.
He said a positive decision for Mohácsi “would overthrow the political position that Hungary is safe.”
Reporting by Mirjam Donath; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Tim Dobbyn