When Ismail Ozkan, a 29-yearold Turkish grocer, sold his store 18 months ago to pay for the $1,000 airfare to Canada, he did not intend to become a celebrity. He was merely taking the word of an unscrupulous Turkish travel agent who, he said, had told him that he and hundreds of his countrymen would be welcome in Canada, even though they had not properly applied to immigrate. Last week Ozkan sought sanctuary in the basement of a Montreal church to avoid deportation.
After three days and nights in the church he won a victory when Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard suspended deportation orders against him and 36 other Turks in Quebec. But the incident threw the immigration system into confusion as many immigration lawyers questioned whether Ottawa was granting special treatment to one group among the huge backlog of refugee claimants in Canada. Said Toronto lawyer Barbara Jackman: “There is the basic question of whether people are being treated equally.”
Bouchard postponed the deportation of the Turks only after Quebec’s immigration minister, Louise Robic, announced that the province would take responsibility for them. Under a 1977 agreement with Ottawa, Quebec has greater power in selecting immigrants than other provinces. But one federal official predicted that Robic’s intervention had set a precedent that could paralyse the federal immigration department. “She has sent word overseas that anyone who claims to be a refugee can
just walk right in regardless of the criteria,” said the official.
Already, roughly 47,000 people in Canada are waiting for their immigration claims to be heard by the federal government. That backlog is so big that, according to Jackman, the only option available to Ottawa is to hold a sped-up review of those cases. Unlike a general amnesty, which some immigrant aid groups called for last week, such a review would mean that officials could look less strictly at applicants. As well,
most would qualify to become Canadian citizens—except on medical, criminal or security grounds. A similar review was last held in 1986—when only 21,000 cases had plugged the system. Bouchard ruled out the possibility of a blanket amnesty last week and even refused to speculate on the possibility of a review.
In the meantime, Ozkan returned to his apartment in east-end Montreal. But while he has escaped immediate deportation to Turkey, where he has a wife and a six-year-old child, Ozkan and his 36 countrymen now must wait for Quebec’s immigration department to decide whether they fit that province’s selection criteria. And the fate of some 1,500 other Turkish refugee claimants living in Montreal also remained unclear. They are just the latest group to bring attention to the confusion that has plagued Canada’s tangled system for deciding who may stay in the country—and who must go.
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