Palestinian refugees face obstacle course

After 50 years of living in Lebanese refugee camps without civilian rights and a year trapped in a Montreal church basement without access to basic facilities, Khalil Ayub and his family have received landed immigration status.

For war-weary peoples, Canada is an obvious refugee destination
For war-weary peoples, Canada is an obvious refugee destination

The government order represents the end of an arduous journey for the Ayub family members to legitimise their status as refugees.

Heavy lobbying by the Coalition against the Deportation of Palestinan Refugees and the Montreal Parish Council led the Canadian Immigration Board to change its stand – after it rejected their three previous claims to refugee status.

Ayub told the church congregation that had gathered in celebration of the decision: “All the Canadian people very gentle, all them. They always help us everything.”

His gratitude towards the Canadian people may be well  founded. However, the experience of Ayub’s family and other Palestinian refugees with Canadian immigration authorities tells a far more depressing story.

The lack of land borders between Canada and countries going through civil strife may not make it appear like an obvious refugee destination.

Yet 2002 UNHCR statistics show that there were hundreds of officially registered refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Congo in Canada.

Systematically refused

These statistics only account for the number of accepted refugee cases; they do not include many rejected refugee claimants who remain in the country illegally.

Among the refugee claimant groups systematically refused by Canadian immigration authorities are Palestinians. There are currently more than one hundred Palestinians,from Lebanon and Syria, claiming refugee status in Canada.

Living conditions in Palestiniancamps in Lebanon are appalling

Living conditions in Palestinian
camps in Lebanon are appalling

In both cases they are fleeing harsh living conditions in countries where they are not afforded the rights of ordinary citizens.

In 1997, after reviewing the living conditions in Lebanese and Palestinian refugee camps, Canada advised the UN on the harsh ground realities and expressed the urgent need for added funding in the United Nations Refugee Working Group.

Nonetheless, this has not been reflected in the Canadian government’s stance towards refugees claimants from these two countries.

In March 2001, Ahmad Abd al-Majid arrived in Canada from a Lebanese camp to claim refugee status. For the next two years he was forced into hiding after his refugee claim was rejected by the Canadian Immigration Board.

In February 2003, the Canadian immigration authorities handcuffed Ahmed and deported him to a New York county jail.

Indefinite detention

In November of 2004, Canada deported another unsuccessful Palestinian refugee claimant, Ahmed Nafa, to the US. He is currenly being held in indefinite detention after his refugee claim was refused by US immigration authorities.

Starting in January 2004, a Montreal campaign run by The Coalition against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees attempted to halt the Canadian government from what it said was the unjustified deportation of dozens of Palestinians.

Deportations of Palestinians area blot on an otherwise fine record

Deportations of Palestinians are
a blot on an otherwise fine record

It wanted the authorities to grant the Palestinians permanent residency on humanitarian grounds.

The members of the coalition heavily criticised what they saw as a bureaucratic and ineffective immigration policy, which discriminates specifically against Palestinian refugees arriving from Lebanon and the Occupied Territories.

One of the founder-members of the group, Rabeh Al-Masri, told in a phone interview: “On 9 September, the Canadian Council for Refugees advised the government to stop the deportation of both Somalian and Palestinian refugees.

The Canadian government immediately stopped deporting refugees back to Somalia and ignored the Palestinians. Clearly this is an indication of some prejudice on the Canadian government’s part.”

No idle threats

On 1 November, the then Canadian immigration minister, Judy Sgro, met with church leaders in Montreal to warn them against the dangers of illegally providing sanctuary to rejected refugee claimants, saying that these claimants could “not hide from the law”.

Sgro was not making idle threats. In March 2003, police forcibly apprehended Muhammad Sharfi, an Algerian refugee who had taken sanctuary in a Quebec city church, and proceeded with his deportation.

“All the Canadian
people very gentle, all them. They always
help us everything”

Khalil Ayub,
Palestinian refugee

On 7 December 2004, Toronto’s National Post newspaper reported that Sgro received an illegal political donation of $5000 from a recently initiated Canadian citizen, Muhsin al-Shaikh.

On 15 December 2004, an independent ethics committee subpoenaed 30 employees from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship regarding accusations that Sgro helped a Romanian stripper obtain landed immigrant status.

On 15 January, Sgro was forced to resign from her position as immigration minister, after allegations made by an Indian refugee claimant, Harjit Singh, that she offered to help process his refugee status in return for free pizzas to be eaten by her election campaign’s volunteers.

While Sgro was adamant that churches and refugee claimants obey immigration law, both she and her predecessor failed to bring into effect an essential part of the reformed Canadian immigration law.

Reformed law

Executive director of Refugees Canada, Janet Dench, told “In 2002 when Canada was going through a reformation of its immigration law, the part of the law which allowed refugees to appeal after their own status was rendered temporarily inactive.

“This part of the law is particularly important because the independent tribunal which decides the fate of refugee claimants consists of one person.”

Refugee claimants still have toface one-person tribunals

Refugee claimants still have to
face one-person tribunals

Dench added: “The immigration minister at the time, Denis Cottard, promised this would change during his term but he failed to push it through.

“His successor Judy Sgro also failed to activate the law. We would hope that the new immigration minister makes good on the old promise.”

As things stand, the appeal division of Canadian immigration law is dormant and refugee claimants must still face one-person tribunals to decide their fate.
Yet hope springs eternal. Sgro’s public refusal to negotiate with churches providing sanctuary to refugee claimants had made it very difficult to appeal against Ayub’s deportation on humanitarian grounds.

But her resignation and replacement by Joe Volpe has made the voice of the coalition and the parish more effective in gaining public sympathy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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