Visa rumours spark fears as Canada threatens “measures” on Roma asylum-seekers

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The Czech media is awash with claims that Canada is on the verge of reintroducing visas for Czech citizens, in reaction to the large numbers of Roma from the Czech Republic seeking asylum there. The speculation led the Czech foreign minister Jan Kohout to call a special press conference on Wednesday at which he confirmed that Canada had informed Prague it intended to take measures, but said no decision had been taken yet on visas.

It was the Czech daily Lidové noviny which broke the news on Wednesday that the government in Ottawa will reintroduce visas for Czech citizens, possibly as early as next Tuesday. Hundreds of Czechs – most if not all of them believed to be from the Roma or gypsy minority - have been seeking asylum in Canada, fleeing what they say is endemic racial persecution and discrimination at home. The reintroduction of visas would be a major setback for the Czechs, who succeeded in having them removed just two years ago. Foreign minister Jan Kohout called a special briefing on Wednesday morning.

“I am able to confirm that the Canadian authorities have informed us of their intention to take measures in reaction to the rising number of asylum requests, including the introduction of visas. I have told the Canadians of the possible negative effect that introducing visas would have not only on Canada’s relations with the Czech Republic but also with the European Union. It is important to stress, however – and I would like to underline this – that Canada has not informed the Czech Republic of any final decision that has been taken.”

The Canadian Embassy said it could not confirm the claims in Lidové noviny, but neither did they deny them. Minister Kohout refused to take questions from journalists. The visa issue is highly sensitive for Czechs – large numbers visit Canada on holiday and business each year, and many Czechs have settled there. They’ve only enjoyed visa-free travel since 2007, when restrictions introduced after a previous wave of Roma immigration were finally lifted after ten years. But Romanies are now arriving in Canada again in great numbers.

The Canwest News Service, quoting official Canadian government statistics, said recently that 853 Czech citizens sought asylum in Canada in 2008, up a staggering 993% from 2007, and more than the number of requests from Iraq or Afghanistan. Canwest reported that forty percent of the asylum requests handled last year were granted, meaning Czech claimants are meeting Canada’s stipulation of granting asylum to people with a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country.

Mr Kohout told reporters the Czech Republic was prepared for any measures taken by Ottawa, but lawyers contacted by the Czech News Agency says if Canada does decide to reintroduce tourist visas for Czechs, Prague would be unable to retaliate in kind; an EU directive and also the Schengen Agreement makes that impossible. The only option would be to introduce visas for Canadian diplomats and officials, something which would signify a serious deterioration in Czech-Canadian relations.