Samir says that the cigarette burns on his upper right arm and a 12-in. scar on his right shin are proof that his life would be in danger if he returned to his native Beirut. Speaking in broken English, the 44-year-old businessman said that he fled from Lebanon in July, 1987, after being jailed and tortured by Lebanese Christian militia. “I came here because I had heard that Canada was a land of freedom,” said Samir, who asked that his full name not be published to avoid potential reprisals against his wife, who still lives in Beirut.
Two years after his arrival, however, Samir still does not know whether Canada will accept him as a refugee. He now shares a townhouse with a friend in Ottawa, and he is taking a course in computer programming. “I go to school every morning,” he said last week. “But by the afternoon I have forgotten everything because I am so worried about what will happen to me and to my wife.”
New: For Samir and for thousands of other asylumseekers now in Canada, the uncertainty may soon come to an end. Later this month, immigration officials will begin hearings to decide the fate of an estimated 124,000 people who claimed refugee status before Jan. 1. Government spokesmen said that it will likely take two years to clear the backlog, but that only about one in six of the claimants will actually be deported. And the future is even brighter for refugee claimants who have arrived in Canada since Jan. 1: a new screening system introduced on that date has reduced to a matter of weeks or months the time needed for the government to decide whether to approve an application for refugee status. Previously, some claimants waited as long as three years. “It is still too early to judge the impact of Canada’s new legislation, but so far we have been favorably impressed by the results,” said Judith Kumin, an information officer at the
headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. “Canada’s record in dealing with refugees is clearly remarkable.”
Speed: Immigration lawyers and human rights groups in Canada are not nearly so effusive in their assessments of the new system. But virtually all of them agree that the new process does represent a significant improvement. Previously, everyone who entered Canada and asked for refugee status was entitled to remain while his claim was considered—a tortuous process that often dragged on for years and involved as many as seven different stages of hearings and appeals. The new
refugee determination system is simpler and faster, involving no more than three stages. “The speed of the process is certainly one of the things we are happy about,” said Margaret Third-Tsushima, Edmonton-based president of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “The refugees can calm down and sleep easily at night.”
Limits: For Ottawa, the chief advantage of the new system is that it allows officials to screen out false refugee claimants at the border. Each new applicant has to appear before a two-member panel, which has the power to order him deported from Canada after 72 hours if it decides that his claim is not credible. By June 8, 6,522 people had applied for refugee status in Canada this year; 406 either withdrew their claims or were rejected after an initial hearing, and of those, 115 were deported. “The message has gone out that there are limits to Canadian generosity,” said Raphael Girard, the federal government’s director-general of refugee affairs. Officials now estimate that only about 15,000 people will seek refuge in Canada this year, compared with more than 35,000 in 1988. At current rates, however, up to 90 per cent of the new claimants will be allowed to settle in Canada.
Despite that, church groups and other humanitarian organizations complain that claimants who are turned away after a preliminary hearing have only a limited right of appeal. The new system does allow them to take their cases to the Federal Court of Canada, but the court does not entertain new evidence, and it is concerned only with legal issues. Declared Elias Morales, co-ordinator of Toronto’s Refugee Information Centre: “The idea of a quick hearing is fine in theory, but it ignores the fact that refugees tend to be confused and nervous. They are really afraid of telling their stories to the first person they meet at the border.” Citing that fact, lawyers for the Canadian Council of Churches have launched a court action to overturn some sections of the refugee law because they say that they violate the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms by failing to protect the claimants’ life, liberty and security. Said Kathleen Ptolemy, who chairs the Inter-Church Committee for Refugees: “When you are dealing with human rights, there is no substitute for an adequate appeals process. Without it, the system is just too haphazard.”
Immigration workers acknowledge that it may be years before the courts render a final verdict on the constitutionality of the legislation. In the meantime, some activists have
decided to appeal directly to Employment and Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall, who has the power to intervene on a humanitarian basis in cases where refugee claimants have been turned down. In one case, McDougall issued a ministerial permit granting resident status to an 18-year-old Ethiopian man, Hussein Mohamoud, who crossed into Canada from the United States in January. But other critics contend that the fate of such people should not depend on ministerial choices. “There is something deeply wrong with the system when people who are denied refugee status can be deported without a second chance,” said Peter Bisson, a Jesuit seminarian
in Toronto who recently helped organize Vigil, a network of people dedicated to defending the rights of refugee claimants.
In Ottawa, immigration officials claim that those complaints are unfounded. Said Girard: “The church people and other advocates are well-meaning, but they do not live in the real world. We believe that Canada has the fairest refugee determination system in the world. What more do they want?” Added Gordon Fairweather, a former chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission who is now chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board: “It is uncharacteristic for Canadians to say that anything is done well, but in this case it is a fact.”
Buildup: Still, some immigration officials say that the new refugee system is still too slow and inefficient to cope with the influx of claimants. In a usual week, 250 to 300 asylumseekers enter Canada. On average, however, the new refugee board issues final rulings in only about 100 cases a week, leading to a buildup of 1,426 cases since the new rules went into effect. For their part, immigration board officials claim that the government has not provided enough staff and money to deal adequately with the existing backlog of claimants. “Overall, the [immigration] department has not shown a great willingness to get going on this,” said Firdaus Kharas, assistant deputy chairman of the refugee board responsible for the clearance program. Added Kharas: “I am very frustrated that we did not get started sooner. The result is that many claimants are confused and upset.” Still, for refugees like Samir, the confusion over their status in Canada remained vastly preferable to the violence and fear that many faced at home.
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