Refugee Claims Possible, But Low-Risk During Vancouver Olympics : Experts

Refugee claims possible, but low-risk during Vancouver Olympics: experts

By Tamsyn Burgmann (CP)
January 11, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C. Before Daniel Igali famously earned Canada wrestling glory by winning its first Olympic gold in the sport, he was a young Nigerian athlete grappling for a superior position in life.

After competing at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, B.C., the 20-year-old made a bold move. He skipped his team's flight back to his politically unstable homeland and asked Canada for asylum.

Had it not been for an international sporting event, Igali might never have been handed a ticket to more prosperous soil. But once here, he gained the right to Canadian protection as a Convention Refugee.

When the world heads to Vancouver next month for the 2010 Winter Olympics, thousands of athletes, coaches, officials, sponsors, workers, journalists and their delegations will enter Canada under unique circumstances. Some might want to claim the Maple Leaf as their own.

“Athletes, team members, people involved with the Games might not have otherwise gained a visa to enter Canada but for the Games,” said Audrey Macklin, who teaches immigration and refugee law at the University of Toronto.

Under the Olympic Charter, people designated as Olympic Family Members needn't show the usual visa to travel here. Instead, they'll be admitted under a special application process handled by the Vancouver Olympic Committee, which will submit those names to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. There is also a special process of entry for accredited workers.

While some consider Canada's immigration policy to be liberal, government officials routinely deny access to people from nations known for persecution in order to avoid taking them in as refugee claimants, Macklin said.

“In the case of the Olympics, of course, there is some pressure on Canada not to do that because the Olympic Games are supposed to be a symbol of international harmony and co-operation,” she said.

While defections by athletes from the Eastern Bloc were common during the Cold War, refugee claims continue to be made even now during international events hosted by Canada.

During the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, at least one person, rumoured in media reports from the time to be a Romanian coach, applied for status.

Thirteen athletes, including Igali, asked to stay during the Victoria Commonwealth Games in 1994. Six Cubans raised the ire of their government when they made claims during the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.

During the Ottawa-Hull-hosted Francophone Games in the summer of 2001, at least 106 participants from 17 countries made bids for refugee status.

And despite rigorous visa screening for World Youth Day in the summer of 2002 in Toronto, a handful of people made claims. Some 150 delegates to the International AIDS Conference in Toronto did so in 2006.

Despite these numbers, immigration experts and advocates aren't predicting a major surge in claims connected with the Vancouver Games. In fact, they say in contrast to Summer Olympics, the risks are fairly low.

“People who practice winter sports are usually from the northern hemisphere (nations), they're very low for potential refugee claimants,” said Patrice Brunet, a Montreal-based specialist in immigration law.

But Brunet didn't rule out the notion that some claims would be made.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration-policy analyst, doesn't discount the likelihood that some visitors may try to overstay. Part of the problem, he said, is that Canada has no way of tracking who leaves.

Australia found itself hunting upwards of 108 people who overstayed their visas after the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Illegals heralded from 61 countries, including 79 members of the Olympic Family and 29 coaches, officials and reporters, according to Australia's The Daily Telegraph.

Some 30 people eventually filed refugee claims.

Three months after the Games, 11 Olympic and Paralympic team members from the United States were still unaccounted for, along with eight people from the U.K., seven from Spain and six from Germany.

“We have the same problem because Canada has no official exit controls,” said Kurland.

Macklin said the government must be prepared for a potentially complex situation should claims be made. Officials must be ready to protect high-profile individuals from exposure, she said.

It's usually under quite different circumstances when someone makes their way to Canada from China, for example, and makes a claim.

“It's not as if there are Chinese government officials standing there ready to drag them back. But here, there will be,” she said. “So you have to make sure that you don't just deliver them back into the hands of Chinese officials.”

About 33,000 people make refugee claims in Canada's Western region each year.

While there's no expectation claims will dramatically spike this time around, Kurland said, it only takes one person asking for a new home – like Igali – to become the next world-famous Canadian.

“No one is overly excited about refugee claims during this Olympics, which may set the stage, frankly, if there's a surprise.”