Border agents endanger asylum seekers by giving up personal information

Posted by admin on Jul 25th, 2008

Canadian Press. Jul 24, 2008

OTTAWA — Canadian border agents are providing personal information on asylum seekers to officials from the very country these people are fleeing, according to foreign diplomats. Karel Hejc, head of consular and political affairs at the Czech Embassy in Ottawa, says during his time at the embassy he has received several faxes from the Canada Border Service Agency, providing the first name, last name and date of birth of Czech citizens claiming refugee status in Canada. “I believe this should not happen,” Hejc told The Canadian Press in an interview.

While Hejc stresses the Czech Republic is not persecuting its citizens, he says such information should not be in his hands.

“I simply believe, according to the Convention on the Status of Refugees, we shouldn’t be provided with personal data of persons applying for asylum from the Czech Republic,” he said.

It is not an isolated incident.

There is anecdotal evidence that it has happened with other embassies as well, although none would speak on the record.

After first receiving such documents, Hejc said he called the Canada Border Service Agency to explain his concerns and prevent further occurrences.

“I tried to reach them via fax, I’ve reached them on the phone, but the situation did not improve,” said Hejc.

He and other Czech embassy officials met Thursday with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to seek a resolution to the matter.

Visa restrictions on visitors coming to Canada from the Czech Republic were lifted last November.

Since then, there has been an influx of Czech citizens seeking asylum. Many are reportedly Czech Romany, colloquially called Gypsies, claiming persecution by neo-Nazis.

Hejc said Czech citizens need not fear reprisal from their own government, but he worries that his is not the only embassy receiving this type of personal information from Canadian border officials.

“Czech Republic is not a country that persecutes people, so we will definitely not look for relatives, we will definitely not use this information and I don’t even pass that information to Prague or anywhere else,” said the embassy official.

Not all countries and their embassy staff are so benign, warns immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.

Waldman said border services has the legal right to verify the identity of any persons wishing to come into Canada, including checks with a refugee seeker’s country of origin.

“But there have to be clear guidelines – and as far as I am aware there are not,” he said.

Both the border agency and Citizenship and Immigration Canada maintain guidelines do exist. No details could be provided, however, due to “operational security” restrictions, said the border agency.

A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said when it comes to contacting an embassy regarding its citizens, each case is assessed individually.

“We would not inform embassies about asylum seekers – absolutely not,” said Karen Shadd of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

“The reason people are seeking asylum often is because they are in danger and it’s just not something we would do.”

Shadd added there could be exceptions in cases where the refugee seeker requests to be put in touch with their embassy, “and that is certainly their right that their embassy be contacted.”

But Hejc says there should be ways to contact the embassy – perhaps providing the first name only when making initial contact – to avoid potentially perilous situations.

“Don’t do it, even if the person asks you to do it . . . these people claim to be persecuted,” he said.

“I don’t believe the CBSA should blindly follow whatever (the asylum seekers) ask. They should explain it to them . . .This is a danger which should be avoided.”

Waldman was part of the legal team for Maher Arar, the Canadian tortured in a Syrian prison as a result of false terrorism accusations.

He believes the level of sensitivity being used by Canada’s border services in asylum cases raises serious safety concerns.

“I know cases where (the Canadian government) made inquiries back in India involving people and it’s resulted in people being tortured,” said the immigration lawyer.

“If trying to verify information about a person results in someone being tortured, then we shouldn’t do it . . .We have to find other ways of verifying information.”

Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, claimants must prove to the Immigration and Refugee Board they fear for their safety in their own country in order to remain in Canada.

Waldman says he has worked on cases where asylum seekers were actually granted refugee status because official Canadian queries to their home countries effectively put them in danger.

Hejc suggests it could be a case of not having the proper protocols in place to avoid these incidents in the future.

“This is something we will have to discuss with CIC to make sure the immigration officers get the proper instructions and get the proper training.”

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