Is Ottawa serious about protecting refugees?
Publisher: The Toronto Star, Canada
Author: by Lorne Waldman
Story date: 17/11/2011
Language: English

The recent stories in the Toronto Star about the refusal of a visa to the Afghan interpreter who had worked with the Canadian Forces are deeply disturbing. Unfortunately, this story is far from unique: every year many people who apply for protection at visa offices abroad are wrongly refused even though there is strong evidence that they would be at risk of persecution or serious harm.

In the case of the Afghan interpreter, the conclusion that he was not in danger is incomprehensible and was made in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. Anyone who has been following events in Afghanistan is aware that the government's hold on power is tenuous and that it cannot even protect members of the government from the Taliban.

The fact that the interpreter had been identified as someone who had worked with Canadian Forces would undoubtedly expose him to a grave risk of reprisals. That the officer could come to the contrary conclusion and deny him the visa only demonstrates that the system for determining who can obtain protection abroad is deeply flawed. One might suspect that there is more to this story – perhaps he is being punished for having spoken out earlier about the delays in processing his application. If such political considerations can come into play, then this would further undermine public confidence in the overseas procedures used to decide which refugees get protection in Canada.

But what is more distressing is that this case is not an isolated one. Earlier this year the Federal Court overturned a large number of cases where refugees who had applied for protection at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo had been refused visas. The cases involved people who had fled from Eritrea who had applied for protection in Canada. Although they had been found to be refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Canadian immigration officer rejected their applications concluding that there was no evidence they would be at risk.

The court found the findings unreasonable, noting: "The evidence of the UNHCR designation was so important to the Applicant's case that it can be inferred from the Officer's failure to mention it in her reasons that the decision was made without regard to it. This is a central element to the context of the decision. The Officer, faced with a UNHCR refugee, should have explained in her assessment why she did not concur with the decision of the UNHCR. The Officer was not under any obligation to blindly follow the UNHCR designation; however, she was obliged to have regard to it. Unless a visa officer explains why a UNHCR designation is not being followed, we have no way of knowing whether regard was had to this highly relevant evidence."

These are not isolated examples, but part of a systemic problem. Visa officers do not have the necessary training to be making these life and death decisions. They are often ill informed about country conditions that are directly pertinent to their decisions. And because visa officer decisions are made outside of Canada, they are far more difficult to challenge. In most instances, their decisions are not challenged and the same mistakes are repeated.

The irony of this situation is that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been promoting the overseas refugee process as the "right way" to seek protection in Canada. For months Kenney has been arguing that the overseas process should be the preferred route for Canada to select refugees. He has gone out of his way to label those refugees who come to Canada to make claims as "illegal claimants" and "queue jumpers." Indeed, he has used these labels to justify the draconian measures that are contained in the new anti-smuggling legislation before Parliament.

However, as the case of the Afghan interpreter illustrates, our track record at selecting refugees outside of Canada is nothing to boast about. Moreover, community groups that privately sponsor refugees – at no public expense – have been expressing concerns that the government plans to terminate future applications. In the face of this evidence, one wonders whether this government really has a serious commitment to helping those who need protection.
 

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