The call came from a hotel near Toronto International Airport where visitors to Canada who are suspected of being illegal immigrants are detained. “There’s a man here who needs help,” said the voice. “He’s a refugee from Chile, and I think he might have been tortured.” Acting on the tip, a member of the human rights group which received the call appeared the next morning, accompanied by a lawyer and a Spanish interpreter.
During hours of skilled and sensitive questioning, the 37-year-old baker’s chilling account of physical and mental torture by Chilean military police emerged. An exhaustive medical examination subsequently corroborated his story. His body is scarred by cigarette burns, by needles thrust into his tongue,
by the application of electricity to his genitals, neck and face. His sleep is profoundly disturbed by recurrent images of his best friend’s execution by firing squad, of the rape of the nine-year-old son of a fellow political prisoner at Pisagua, a “concentration camp” where more than 800 Chilean men and women were forced to observe and submit to systematic torture for “crimes” as grave as providing food for the orphaned children of parents seized by the military police.
The victim who made it to Toronto was lucky. With help, he was able to persuade Canadian immigration authorities he had a “well-founded” fear of persecution if he returned home. His request for political asylum was approved. For 13 other Latin Americans currently awaiting deportation in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, fate hasn’t been so kind. On the contrary, they have discovered that the process by which refugee claims are evaluated in Canada is, in the words of Toronto bar admission student Lome Waldman,
“a breach of every rule of natural justice.”
At no point from the time a refugee makes his initial contact with immigration officials until a deportation order is executed is he advised that legal, medical and moral support is available to assist him at minimal or no cost. According to the Anglican Church of Canada’s George Cram, chairman of the Interchurch Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, refugees are instructed that they are entitled to a lawyer, but many waive their right because they are given no help to locate one. What’s more, not only does a refugee lack the right to an oral hearing in the presence of the federal Refugee Status Advisory Committee which assesses his claim—but he has no right to an appearance before the appeal board or even to know the reasons for the committee’s decision.
“We know of 13 cases right now where the process has failed people whom we believe to be bona fide refugees,” says Cram. “They are all in serious danger if they return home.” Several were brutally tortured before they fled to Canada, adds Waldman, who has acted as legal counsel to about 40 political refugees from Latin America. Yet because they had little or no legal representation during immigration proceedings, medical evidence supporting their accounts of persecution was not submitted. “It’s incumbent upon the government to ensure these people are properly represented by a lawyer and examined by a medical doctor,” says Toronto physician Philip Berger. “At the present time, they are not making fair and just decisions.”
Berger, who works out of the South
Riverdale Community Health Centre is spearheading the efforts of Amnesty International’s Canadian Medical Group to establish a nationwide network of doctors who will examine and treat torture victims on a rotation basis free of charge. Despite the sometimes urgent need for treatment, most refugees have no money for medical care and, until they are officially accepted as refugees, are not entitled to medical insurance coverage in most provinces. So far, in the Toronto area alone, about 20 physicians and 18 dentists have volunteered their services.
To emphasize the importance of medical examinations, Berger tells about a female Chilean refugee who had been hooded and raped repeatedly by a group of men: “She had never told anyone about it, not even her lawyer. It came out in a very traumatic way during a thorough history-taking, and it might never have happened except under those circumstances.”
Cram refers to a 1977 documentary film called I Am a Refugee, produced by the UN High Commission for Refugees, to illustrate the necessity of an oral hearing in refugee cases. In it, a refugee succeeds in appealing his original rejection by demonstrating dramatically that a signed “confession” submitted as evidence against him was extracted under torture by authorities in his own country. “This is the UN’s interpretation of what transpires in most countries when an individual seeks admission as a refugee,” explains Cram. “People are shocked when we tell them this is not how it happens here.”
In Canada, a refugee can submit a written request for an appeal, he says. “In 99 per cent of cases, he won’t get it.” Even worse, adds Waldham, a refugee here is forbidden from knowing if other evidence has even been considered by the committee. “He is given no opportunity to refute it. Their deliberations are all held in secret.” Committee Chairman Edgar Ziegler, one of three civil service appointees, says members may request an oral hearing with an applicant if they think it necessary. “It’s unlikely that we would, though,” he says. “It would create a precedent, and the need just hasn’t arisen.” According to Ziegler, the committee has been encouraged to maintain a “low profile.”
An angry Berger says he has a secondary reason for photographing the injuries borne by the refugees he examines. “I want those committee members to see what these people look like. It seems incredible to me that they never meet them face-to-face.” Remarks Edgar Ziegler: “We’ve had very few adverse comments. I think the system works very well.”
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