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Erzsebet Csorba and her grandson, Mate, by the ruins of the house where the boy's father ad brother were killed.

Douglas Saunders

Once or twice a month, three-year-old Mate Csorba disappears from his family house on the edge of a Hungarian village. When his worried relatives find him wandering in the forest, he tells them he is searching for his father and his older brother, who are out hunting.

That is, after all, what his grandmother told him one morning a year ago, after a midnight blaze of firebombs and gunshots destroyed their house on the edge of a rural village, and black-clad gunmen chased the boy's family through the woods and killed Mate's father and five-year-old brother, both named Robert.

"Little Mate had been sleeping in my house when I heard three shots and a window smashing in their house next door," his grandmother, Erzsebet, said as she surveyed the burned-out ruins. "I heard a car driving away fast, and then saw my daughter-in-law standing and screaming outside, with burns all over her, beside the body of little Robert. I couldn't tell Mate the truth."

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The drive-by murders were strikingly similar to dozens of other crimes across Hungary last year. The largest group of victims lived in houses at the edge of a village, bordering on the woods. Some had burning crosses or swastikas planted outside their homes. And all the victims, like the Csorbas, were members of Hungary's large Roma minority, sometimes known as Gypsies.

The attacks, which tapered off in the autumn but many fear will return after Hungary's April elections, have made members of this highly segregated, formerly nomadic minority terrified for their lives.

"You can't imagine what it's like when it gets dark here," Erzsebet Csorba says. "My 14-year-old son sleeps in my bed, he's so afraid of ending up like his brother." She plans to stay put in Hungary, in defiance of the right-wing militia known as the Hungarian Guard that likely carried out the killings. But many of her neighbours are considering another, increasingly popular tack: Fleeing Hungary, very often to the safety of Canada.

That is why this Hungarian murder spree, and its aftereffects, have become a matter of deep concern in Ottawa, where officials say they are likely to impose visa restrictions this year on Hungarian visitors.

After the killings gained attention last year, Canada began seeing a sharp spike in applications for refugee status from Hungarian Roma families visiting Canada. Hungary is now Canada's third-largest source of refugee claimants, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The Harper government is likely to require Hungarians to make applications for visas at Canada's consulates in Hungary, an expensive process that could draw waves of protest from the sizable Hungarian-Canadian community, many of whom arrived as refugees after the 1956 Soviet invasion.

Officially, the government has no visa plans, but aides said restrictions are likely to be imposed after Hungary's April election, in order to avoid providing ammunition to extremist anti-Roma parties. The move would follow similar visa restrictions placed on the Czech Republic and Mexico last summer (the Czech case was also designed to stop Roma refugees) which provoked diplomatic reprisals from both countries and threatened to damage trade relations.

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According to figures provided by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there were 285 Hungarian applications for asylum in 2008, the first year Hungarians were allowed to enter Canada without visas.

In the first nine months of 2009 alone, after the murders in Hungary began, that number increased almost fivefold, to 1,353 applications - and the numbers for the past four months are believed to be even higher. All of the 2009 asylum applications have been rejected. Canadian officials argue that Hungarian citizens are free to live in any of the other 26 EU countries, so are not considered legitimate asylum claimants.

This influx is so alarming to the Harper government that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney visited Budapest last summer to lobby the Hungarian government to get tougher on the anti-Roma crimes.

Shortly after that visit, Hungary announced a string of arrests, including the two men held responsible for the Csorba murders. Things have become quiet in recent months, but there are fears that another wave of killings will begin when warm weather returns and Hungary's upcoming elections are over.

Those elections are expected to produce gains for the ultra-right-wing Jobbik Party, whose members have made explicit statements against Roma, Jews and other minorities. The party won 15 per cent of the Hungarian vote in last year's European Parliament elections. It has close ties to the outlawed Hungarian Guard, an armed neo-Nazi militia whose members wear fascist-style uniforms and have been convicted in many of the killings.

The winner of the elections is expected to be the centre-right Fidesz Party, whose leaders have been slow to censure members who have ties to the extreme right or make anti-Semitic and anti-Roma statements.

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Roma politicians here say that Hungary's governments have repeatedly failed to make life safe for this long-established people.

"In communist times, they made us live in separate villages and go to separate schools. And in the last 20 years nothing has changed - there has been no serious effort to introduce racial integration, even though it's what we want, or to bring Roma schools and towns up to national standards," says Viktoria Mohacsi, a Roma who was a Hungarian Member of European Parliament until she was defeated by a Jobbik candidate last year.

In the village of Tatarszentgyorgy, in an isolated area 65 kilometres southeast of Budapest, there is little sense that anything has been done beyond arresting two members of the Hungarian Guard for the Csorba murders. The mayor of this district, who has ties to the Guard, refused to act or to enter the Roma village, its residents say. His police investigation had concluded that the family had died from a fire caused by electrical faults; only months later did Budapest intervene and note the gunshot wounds to father and son.

The ruins of the house still stand and Ms. Csorba still has shocked memories of that night, when it took two hours for an ambulance to arrive as her son lay dying in her arms.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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