Canadian airline could be sued for not honoring tickets purchased by Romani passengers
CBC News reports that a human rights group based in Hungary wants Canadian-based Air Transat and other airlines that have rejected Romani passengers travelling to Canada to refund their fares. The group says as many as 50 passengers have been prevented from boarding flights to Canada recently because they either actually were or appeared to be Romani and their fares have not been refunded.
Márton Udvari, a lawyer with the NEKI group in Hungary, told "CBC Montreal Investigates" that the ticket-holders were questioned by allegedly unidentified officials as they tried to check in to their Canada-bound flights and were then denied permission to board the aircraft. Air Transat is the only Canadian airline offering nonstop flights between Budapest and Toronto.
Ticket holder Mihály Nagy told the CBC that he attempted to travel to Toronto on 2 July with his common-law wife and her three children, who are Romani. He was not allowed to check in for the flight but was instead questioned by officials whom he says refused to identify themselves.
"Almost all of those who were taken aside there were dark-skinned," Nagy told the CBC. "They started to bombard us with questions, some unpleasant questions, as if we were in a court interrogation."
The officials reportedly asked him where he got the money to buy his family's tickets. Air Transat then refused to let them on board and has not compensated their loss.
The airline sent a written statement to Nagy on 23 September stating that Canadian officials screening passengers at Budapest airport "determined that you and your party were apparently lacking appropriate documentation, and consequently advised Air Transat to deny you boarding." That explanation is apparently bogus, as the passports of all the family members were valid and Hungarian citizens do not need visas to visit Canada as tourists.
Another ticket holder told the CBC she was going to Toronto with her five-year-old to see her brother, a recognized refugee, and her husband, who is waiting to hear the status of his asylum claim. She admitted that if her husband were to be granted asylum there, she and her daughter would have also applied for asylum.
Nagy told CBC he had purchased round-trip tickets and said the officials seemed suspicious of his plans for the family to stay only one month. He believed he had purchased tickets with an open-ended return.
Air Transat not talking
The airline declined CBC News requests for personal interviews. In email correspondence, however, the company said the claims of ethnic profiling are "groundless".
Debbie Cabana, a company spokesperson, wrote to the CBC that Air Transat does not comment on individual cases. She said the non-refundable nature of all tickets is clear when they are sold.
"[I]f and when travellers fail to demonstrate that they are travelling for leisure purposes, they need a visa," Cabana said. "In other words, the heart of the story is that people were found by officials not to be travelling for tourism purposes and consequently were found not to have valid travel documents,"
"We deeply regret the situations which occurred in Budapest," Michel Lemay, the airline's vice-president of communications, said in a different email to CBC. "Denying boarding is not something we like to do and such decisions are not taken lightly."
The Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) also declined CBC's interview request, but spokesperson Line Guibert-Wolff said by email that the agency employs "liaison officers" to help airlines ensure passengers are properly documented. She also said that while the officers make recommendations to airlines, the final decision on whether to board passengers is up to the airline - but the federal Immigration and Refugee Protection Act says airlines must leave behind anyone whom "an officer directs not be carried" to Canada.
NEKI could sue Canadian airlines in Hungary
Lawyer Márton Udvari told the CBC that NEKI plans to file for compensation through the Hungarian government's consumer protection agency, which could take up to four months. Failing that, they will file a civil lawsuit.
He acknowledged to the CBC that some tourists do overstay their welcome in Canada. "I think the Canadian authorities tried to stop this phenomenon," he said.
The lawyer believes what is discriminatory is that so many Romani people are being denied travel across the board. Roma from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia have claimed asylum in Canada in recent years alleging persecution in their home countries.
In 2012 Canada placed Hungary on a "safe country" list, which has made it harder for citizens of Hungary to successfully apply for asylum, although some Romani people have been recognized as refugees from Hungary even today. Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney justified including Hungary on the list by asserting that there had been a sharp increase in "bogus claims" from the EU Member State, CBC reports.
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