Make Refugee Bid In Canada, Iraqis Advised

Make refugee bid in Canada, Iraqis advised
Chances of getting permanent status much better once here, lawyers say

Saturday's Globe and Mail
December 2, 2006

Immigration lawyers are telling those fleeing the violence of Iraq that the best way to get into Canada is to make it here physically first, even if illegally.

Those who manage to come to Canada — often using fake passports, smugglers or both — and then apply after landing have an excellent chance of acceptance.

Meanwhile, the majority, those who apply overseas, often face long waits, inexperienced visa officers and bleaker odds of success.

“I'm telling clients, 'If you can make it here, that's your best bet,' ” says Chantal Desloges, an immigration lawyer who handles many Iraqi cases.

“I don't want to hear about how you get here, but if you do, your chances of getting in are virtually 100 per cent,” she said.

In recent months, many international agencies have declared the refugee situation in Iraq a crisis, as the number of people fleeing the widespread sectarian violence surged to new highs, surpassing prewar United Nations projections.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a report stating that more than one million Iraqis have fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

However, the group added that none of Iraq's neighbours, nor the United States, treats them as refugees.

As such, many Iraqis in countries such as Jordan are having trouble getting access to education or health care, while others are being arrested and deported back to Iraq.

A report on the country, released last month by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, puts it more bluntly: “Iraq is hemorrhaging.”

The impact of this exodus is reflected in the growing number of refugees making their way to Iraq's neighbouring countries and on to Europe. For the most part, Canada hasn't seen an equivalent increase in Iraqi refugees, partly because it is farther away and some European countries, such as Sweden, have immigration laws that make it easier for Iraqis to gain residency. In order to get to Canada, Iraqi refugees often have to go through Europe, and many of them simply stay there.

But for those who do want to get to Canada, there's often a stark difference between applying for refugee status here and applying overseas.

Iraqis who manage to make it to Canada and then apply for refugee status have an excellent chance of being allowed to stay. In 2002, the year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the acceptance rate for such refugees — who are handled by the Immigration and Refugee Board — was 50 per cent. This year, that number is almost 85 per cent. Historically, global IRB acceptance rates hover around the 45-per-cent mark.

Since 2003, Canada has also had in place a temporary suspension-of-removal order on Iraqi asylum seekers whose applications are rejected, in recognition of conditions in their home country.

That recognition of reality helped keep Khaled Al Neemey in Canada.

Mr. Al Neemey arrived at Pearson airport in July, 2001, with a fake British passport and $14 in his pocket. Seven months earlier, he had left Iraq and fled to Turkey, where he paid a smuggler $5,000 to get him to Canada.

The 39-year-old man's refugee claim was rejected in 2002, partly because he served in the Iraqi army during the invasion of Kuwait, something he said he was forced to do. While awaiting deportation, Mr. Al Neemey worked odd jobs at supermarkets and food banks. Finally, this February, he received a call from an immigration officer.

“[The officer] said, 'It's not fair to issue a deportation order when Iraq is like this, we are human beings,' ” Mr. Al Neemey said.

Instead, he was asked to collect his employment and bank records and come to an interview for permanent resident status.

“I love this country,” he says. “It has given me a lot, more than my own country has given me.”

But as Mr. Al Neemey benefits from the advantages of applying within Canada, his friend Ahmed Hadi is struggling with the often insurmountable hurdles faced by those trying to come here from abroad.

Mr. Hadi immigrated to Canada in 1996, eventually running a small convenience store in Montreal. As the situation in Iraq worsened during the past three years, most of his family fled the country. But one of his sisters is still stuck in Baghdad with her four children, alone after her husband died five months ago, he says.

As he tries to get her out of Iraq, Mr. Hadi finds that neighbouring countries are increasingly unwilling to let Iraqis through. That, coupled with the growing internal violence and other nations' reluctance to issue Iraqis visas, makes Mr. Hadi pessimistic about his sister's odds of ever getting the chance to apply for refugee status in Canada, let alone come here.

“It's becoming almost impossible to apply,” he said. “This is the story of every Iraqi family right now.”

Overseas refugee claims are handled by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, which relies on the services of a “referral agency.” By far, the biggest agency is the UN High Commission for Refugees. The only other way to apply as a refugee from abroad is to be sponsored by a group of people or organization in Canada. Nanda Na Champassak, UNHCR's senior external relations officer in Canada, did not have specific statistics for Iraqi refugees, but she said that globally, about 80 per cent of referrals the UNHCR makes to Canada are accepted.

But getting to that stage isn't easy. For one thing, the agency doing the referring is almost broke.

In the past two years, and especially this year, the flood of refugees out of Iraq has surpassed initial predictions, with more than 425,000 fleeing their homes so far in 2006 alone. Another 2,000 to 3,000 are estimated to flee from Iraq every day. At the same time, the agency's budget has dropped to about $29-million (U.S.). While much attention has been given to the daily atrocities going on in Iraq, there is less concern for the humanitarian crises these atrocities are creating, Ms. Na Champassak said.

But while refugee claimants have much better odds of making it into Canada if they come here first, the vast majority won't get that chance — fewer than 100 such applicants were accepted in 2005.

“Ninety-nine per cent will not get a chance to make it to North America. You need a visa, you need a passport,” says Shirzad Ahmed, an immigration lawyer in Alberta.

Overseas, lawyers argue, refugee claimants are often subjected to arbitrary decisions by officers who don't specialize in refugee cases the same way IRB members do in Canada.

In one case that Ms. Desloges handled, the application of an Iraqi Christian family was denied because the officer did not believe that their statements about being threatened with kidnapping by gangs were credible, in part because the officer didn't think serious criminals would write ransom notes on flowered stationary.

In another case that Mr. Ahmed represented, a Kurdish Iraqi man applying from Sweden was turned down because the officer handling his case believed he had no reason to fear persecution from Islamic militants now that the United States had invaded Iraq and the Kurdish population was under U.S. protection.

In October, a Federal Court of Canada judge gave Mr. Ahmed's client a new hearing, calling the officer's findings “patently unreasonable.” Mr. Ahmed tried to contact his client in Sweden, but has so far been unable to — he fears his client may already have been deported back to Iraq.

But at a time when several countries have stopped accepting referrals out of Iraq altogether, Canada is still doing a relatively good job of dealing with the influx of refugees from the war-torn country that come through the UNHCR, Ms. Na Champassak said.

Indeed, Canada was singled out for thanks at a UNHCR briefing in Geneva early last month for helping the agency resettle a group of Palestinian refugees from Iraq. About 150 Palestinians are currently stranded in Ruwayshed, described by the agency as a scorpion-infested camp in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan. Some are about to spend their fourth winter there. UNHCR officials tried to get neighbouring countries to accept them, but none would agree. So far, Canada is the only country in the world to take in the Palestinian refugees, Ms. Na Champassak said, clearing 63 of them for travel by the end of the year.

But the UNHCR still finds itself outmatched in dealing with one of the fastest-growing refugee problems on the planet. Because of the violence, virtually all of the group's operations have been moved outside Iraq.

In the meantime, Mr. Hadi continues to try to get his sister out of Baghdad, a city where she fears sending her children to school or going out for groceries — last week, a mortar shell exploded outside her house.

“It's the most dangerous, unsafe city in the world,” Mr. Hadi says.

“It's hell, basically.”

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