There is a tattered pocket Bible, a tape recorder and four microphones in each of the 13 windowless hearing rooms of the immigration offices near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. In those stark rooms, potential refugees under oath recount compelling, sometimes horrifying stories of persecution abroad. But for the past year, thousands of Portuguese citizens have challenged the credulity of immigration officials with extraordinary tales. They say they are Jehovah’s Witnesses fleeing from persecution in Roman Catholic Portugal. Although many of them garble or forget the name of the religion they profess to believe in, their claims give them an automatic right to stay in Canada, sometimes for years, until the merit of their claim is finally determined. And under Canadian immigration policies hundreds of false refugees from Portugal are now almost certain to become Canadian citizens. To stem that tide, the federal government made it mandatory on July 24 for all Portuguese citizens to obtain visas before travelling to Canada.
Employment and Immigration Minister Gerry Weiner attributed the problem to unscrupulous immigration con-
sultants whom he accused of counselling clients to make false refugee claims. Indeed, two years ago, Portuguese “refugees” were almost unknown in Toronto, but last year more than 3,600 filed their claims with immigration officials. Almost all are clients of a handful of local consultants or lawyers who offer to guide them through the immigration process for as much as $2,000. The would-be refugees usually learn about the consultants from newspaper ads in Portugal. Said Ed Graça, chairman of the Portuguese Interagency Network, which serves the Toronto area’s 120,000-strong Portuguese community: “It’s so blatant, it’s so obvious. Everyone knows who is doing it.”
Last May, the federal government decided to clean up a five-year backlog of refugee claims with a quick review of all outstanding cases. Under the terms of the review, due to begin on Aug. 15, claimants can quickly become landed immigrants regardless of their credibility as refugees, as long as they are reasonably well established in their new lives. Said Frederika Rotter, a lawyer specializing in immigration for Toronto’s Parkdale Community Legal Services: “That is the joke of it. For many of them the strategy will work.”
At the same time as it announced the review, the government instituted what it called a new “fast-track” procedure for judging all future refugee claims. Ottawa wants to remove the incentive for making false claims by speeding up the process, so that an unqualified refugee would exhaust all rights of appeal within six months of first making a declaration. By contrast, some claimants whose cases are now eligible for review have been living and working in Canada since 1981. But the fast-track system was effectively stalled by the continuing inundation of Portuguese. Graça said the consultants were determined to jam up the system and make another amnesty inevitable. It nearly worked, according to Bruce McAdam, a senior official at the Canada Immigration Centre in Mississauga, Ont., who declared, “If we didn’t get the visas, fast-track would have been finished in this district.”
The government is hoping that the difficulties of obtaining a visa will prevent would-be refugees from ever leaving Portugal. But in the House of Commons last week, Liberal MP Sergio Marchi, himself an immigrant, said the requirement would also penalize the more than 10,000 Portuguese who visit relatives in Canada each year. For his part, Weiner said the visa rule is only temporary and added that the RCMP is preparing cases against unscrupulous consultants. “My intention is to close them down,” he told Maclean’s. So far, there is only hearsay evidence of a consultant counselling Portuguese clients to make false refugee claims. But James Campbell, director of enforcement for the immigration department in Ontario, said “four or five” Portuguese who abandoned their claims are still in Canada to testify at upcoming trials against consultants.
In the days before the deadline barring visa-free travel from Portugal, the number of Portuguese refugee claimants arriving at Toronto continued to increase. Still, government officials say they are confident that the policy will halt false refugee claims because of its past success in stopping similar claims made by citizens of India and Guyana.
New refugee legislation due to be introduced this fall is expected to address the problem, but as long as Canada accepts refugees some impostors will accompany them. Meanwhile, the challenge is to prevent the current system from collapsing under the strain imposed by thousands of opportunists who claim to be fleeing from persecution that clearly does not exist.
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