Four Olympian Spectators Seeking Refugee Status In Canada

Four Olympic spectators seeking refugee status in Canada

By Tamsyn Burgmann
February 20, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C.—Border officials say four people who entered Canada as Olympic Games spectators are seeking to stay as refugees.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada said that by Friday, only the handful of people had sought asylum. Owing to privacy law, officials could not release specific details about their identities or home countries.

All four would have had to have either proof, such as Games tickets, or special entry documents, said a Vancouver immigration expert.

Hundreds of thousands of foreigners are visiting Vancouver for the Games, including athletes, their families, Olympic officials and spectators, all of whom would have been questioned at Customs on their reasons for coming here.

“The Olympic race includes refugees to Canada, because we're letting so many more people into the country so quickly,” said Richard Kurland, an immigration policy analyst.

Immigration spokeswoman Johanne Nadeau couldn't immediately explain how officials identified the four as Olympic spectators, but Kurland said along with those who pulled out tickets or proof of accommodation, the group could include spouses or others accompanying athletes and officials designated as “Olympic family members.”

There are several ways people could enter Canada for the Games, Kurland said.

Members of the Olympic “family” were given accreditation through the Vancouver organizing committee, known as VANOC, after background checks by Immigration Canada. The organizing committee's workforce went through the same process.

About 7,000 of those 27,000 members would have normally required a visa to get into the country, coming from countries like India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Iran and Lebanon.

“Those who are accredited by VANOC will receive a unique Olympic/Paralympic Identity and Accreditation Card … which will provide access to venues and sites,” says a June 2009 Immigration Canada information bulletin. “In addition, for participants from visa-required countries, the (card) will serve as an entry document into Canada.”

Canada took the risk of getting more refugee claims by allowing thousands of people into Canada without a visa during the Games, Kurland said.

“We don't know if the claimants got in because of this memo,” he said.

However, if someone arriving as a spectator didn't have that special accreditation and didn't need a visa, they would encounter the usual protocol: showing a valid passport, return ticket home and proof of reason for their stay, such as tickets to events or funds for a hotel stay.

Refugee claimants are nothing new to international sporting events.

At least one sporting official – believed to be a Romanian coach – claimed refugee status during the 1988 Calgary Games, and Canadian Olympian Daniel Igali claimed asylum here after competing at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. He received citizenship and went on to win a gold medal wrestling for Canada in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Kurland expects there could be more claims yet.

“Given the past experience of previous Olympic Games, typically people will slide underground and not go home,” he said. “They surface after the closing ceremonies in the refugee system.”

Nadeau said the four would-be refugees will be processed individually, with each case assessed on its owns merits.