Contesting a claim for refugee status

MARY JANIGAN May 30 1988

Contesting a claim for refugee status

MARY JANIGAN May 30 1988

Contesting a claim for refugee status

The case provided a perplexing glimpse into the Byzantine world of Canada’s refugee policy. According to a report in Toronto’s Globe and Mail last week, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark urged the immigration department to deny refugee status to a Sikh claimant —even though independent officials declared that Santokh Singh Bagga was a genuine refugee. In a letter to former immigration minister Benoît Bouchard, Clark said that Indian officials wanted the man for his suspected involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The newspaper report charged that Clark’s concerns apparently “have more to do with bilateral relations with India than with the merits of the refugee claim.” With the support of national Sikh leaders, Singh vehemently denied all charges. His Toronto lawyer, Mendel Green, demanded that Clark produce the evidence against his client. Said Green: “Put up or shut up.”

It will not be that easy. An examination of the facts raised disturbing questions about many of the individuals and organizations involved in the case. The claimant, who is now legally known as Santokh Singh, is a distinguished Sikh academic who told Maclean’s last week: “I abhor violence and I abhor terrorism. I am a man of peace and religion.” But among Singh’s 20 books and pamphlets, a 1984 volume,

The Only Option for Sikhs, distinguishes between the killing of innocent bystanders and what he calls the justified “40 murders” in recent years of Indians who allegedly tortured Sikhs or who insulted the Sikh religion. In the book, he describes the fate of a Hindu who defaced a Sikh painting: “This man deserved to be killed upon the spot.

The roles played by the Indian government and the external affairs and immigration departments in Ottawa also provoked questions.

India’s high commissioner, S. J. Singh Chhatwal, denied last week that India had charged Singh with an offence: “As of now there is no case.” But senior Indian officials later told Maclean’s that Indian authorities are still investigating serious charges against Singh.

Although external affairs officials

It was his luck that he survived for a few weeks after such a disgraceful act.” And he referred to the assassins of the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi as “two brave Sikhs acting as agents of the Ultimate Power of Justice—the Truth.”

told Maclean’s that Clark intervened solely because of Canada’s security concerns, after the immigration department initially rejected Singh’s application for refugee status, excerpts from Clark’s letters appeared to introduce political considerations, such as the risk of offending India, into the refugee process. In a June 2, 1987, letter to Bouchard, for one, Clark said that it was “most disconcerting to learn that a number of Indian Sikhs were recently recognized as refugees.”

The affair landed in Canada’s lap in June, 1986, when Singh entered British Columbia from the United States “because I never heard of any Sikh being given refugee status in America.” He promptly reported to immigration authorities, confessing that he had used false identification to cross the border. Then he claimed refugee status.

From the start, Singh’s case stood out among the 770 Sikhs who claimed refugee status within the past two years. With his doctorate in philosophy from India’s University of Poona and his prolific outpouring of political tracts, Singh was a formidable opponent of the Gandhi government, which has faced charges of human rights abuses during its bloody six-year struggle with Sikh nationalists. In inflammatory prose, Singh charged that India was exterminating its Sikhs— and he called for the creation of an independent Sikh state, Khalistan. But although he lauded the “40 murders,’’ he stopped short of advocating specific acts of violence.

Only four Sikhs have received refugee status since 1980. Singh’s claim followed the normal, painfully complicated route. It was quickly slipped into the socalled Manifestly Unfounded Claims stream, a fast-track process used when immigration officials believe that the a. claim is probably not ^justified. In March, 5 1987, officials concluded I that Singh’s claim was unfounded. Next, a departmental official took another look at the claim and decided that it was not manifestly unfounded. Then, Joe Stern, chairman of the Refugee Status Advisory Committee, an independent body that reviews refugee claims, sent the case to a three-mem-

ber advisory panel. That body concluded in June, 1987, that Singh was a refugee. But then that decision went back to three departmental officials who decided in December, 1987—six months after Clark’s second letter to Bouchard—that the claim was unfounded. As International Trade Minister John Crosbie told the Commons last week: “It is quite obvious that people acting in good faith, looking at the same information, can come to different conclusions.”

But if the refugee determination process was ordinary, Clark’s intervention was extraordinary. Senior officials emphasize that every minister has the duty to inform colleagues about security concerns. But in his June 2, 1987, letter, Clark also registered his concern that the advisory committee had started “to recommend in favor of Sikh refugee claimants.” Although the newspaper did not release the full text of Clark’s letters, his remarks appeared to indicate that he objected to the recognition of any Sikh applicants. But Canadian law stipulates that each case must be judged on individual, humanitarian grounds. At a news conference last week, Clark insisted that he acted in the Singh case solely for security reasons, not to appease India: “If someone is a refugee under our law, that person has a right to stay in our country whatever is said by the governments of the country from which that person comes.”

But the damage to Clark’s reputation in the Sikh community was done. In Toronto last week, national Sikh leaders called for Clark’s resignation. Said Kuldeep Singh Chhatwal, a spokesman for the Ontario Sikh Association: “When injustice is done only because I look a little different, that really burns any sensible person.”

Meanwhile, Singh, 51, returned to his farm near Paris, Ont., and to his work as a priest and co-ordinator of a Sikh Resource Centre. He told Maclean's: “If I am in Indian hands, they will cut me into pieces in torture and throw away my body. But there is justice in this country.” His lawyer has applied for a hearing before the Immigration Appeal Board. But last March, in an unrelated case, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the board cannot hear refugee claims because its federally appointed members might appear biased against the claimants since they must depend upon the goodwill of the government for reappointment to their jobs. Although that decision is now under appeal, a backlog of cases has developed, and Singh’s hearing will likely not occur for two to three years.



in Ottawa