Canada Turning Away Afghan Asylum Seekers

Posted by admin on Aug 21st, 2008

By Michelle Collins, Canadian Embassy Magazine

Despite repeated statements that progress is being made in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans are actively trying to flee to the safety of countries abroad, including Canada.  But it appears that Afghans seeking asylum in Canada stand a better chance of being granted refuge if they can make their way onto Canadian soil rather than apply at visa offices overseas, according to figures obtained by Embassy. In 2007, the Canadian visa post in Islambad approved 34.5 per cent of applicants under the privately sponsored refugee class, whereas the Immigration and Refugee Board in Canada approved 69 per cent of applications received.

Experts and immigration lawyers in Canada say the low approval rates of applications in Islamabad is indicative of a widespread problem of poor training and decision-making that they say has been plaguing Canadian visa offices abroad for years—and why the immigration department has launched an internal review of its processes, called a Quality Assurance project.

Executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees Janet Dench said refugee advocates have been asking the government to address the problems at visa offices overseas for a long time.

The 34.5 per cent approval rate in Islamabad is a significant drop from the 59 per cent of applications approved in 2005 and 2006, while approvals at the Refugee Board are also down from 82 per cent in 2006, and 74 per cent in 2005.

“A lot of the way visa office decision making on refugees goes is there seems to be a kind of trend that goes on in decision making,” Ms. Dench said, of why the approval rates may have dropped in 2007. “The impression we get often is they kind of make generalizations or they make general decisions about what we’re going to say about the situation in the country of origin, and they’re quite influenced about what the UNHCR might say.”

As Afghanistan is on an apparent path of recovery, the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, has focused on encouraging Afghans—the largest group of people of concern to the organization today—to return to Afghanistan.

UNHCR’s representative in Canada, Abraham Abraham, said an average of 1,100 to 1,200 people are returning to Afghanistan every day, while resettlement to another country, such as Canada, is a tool of last resort.

“We are seeing a trend toward voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan, it is a positive thing, it has been going on several years and UNHCR has been supporting it,” Mr. Abraham said. “It signals that there are places in Afghanistan that people are able to go back to; the vast majority of the people returning are from frontier provinces, Pakistan.”

But executive director of the Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto, Adeena Niazi, said the improvements taking place across Afghanistan have done little to change human rights and she insists men and women are still at risk of persecution.

Since 2001, an estimated five million Afghan refugees have returned, with still more than three million Afghans outside its borders; approximately one million in Iran and almost two million in Pakistan.

“We get lots of calls from overseas, but also from friends and families here in Canada, but we don’t have the capacity, and also the acceptance rate is low. The rate has dropped down because some of the reports coming from the government trying to paint a rosy picture of Afghanistan,” Ms. Niazi said. “If it is essential for our troops to be there, there is a need.”

In recent months, there has been an increase in reports of Afghans fleeing the violence spreading across southern provinces and heading for Kabul. This past Saturday, the Hamilton, Ont.-based Pashtun Peace Forum called on the international community, including Canada, to provide immigration and refugee status to people displaced in the region on a priority basis to “save innocent Pashtun people from the war-drama between Al-Qaida and Pakistani military agencies.”

Visa Office Problems

Paulette Johnson, program co-ordinator for the refugee sponsorship program at the Catholic Social Services in Edmonton, said she has long been concerned that refugee applicants overseas do not receive the quality of review they are given in Canada. A recent review of the refusals to some of her own cases for Sudanese refugee applicants revealed a similar pattern where several cases were rejected, yet the applicant could not safely return.

“I take a big sigh because it’s been a really very long standing frustration we’ve had that we do not feel that the review or assessment that a refugee has, or receives overseas, is equivalent to or as consistent as what they might get in Canada,” Ms. Johnson said.

The immigration department’s review, said spokeswoman Karen Shadd, is evaluating the decisions made for approximately 240 of the applications (about 10 per cent) ruled on at visa offices in the Africa/Middle East region to determine whether decisions are in line with the laws, regulations and policy.

The reviews are focusing on decisions of both approved and refused cases from seven overseas missions, in Accra, Abidjan, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Damascus, Nairobi and Pretoria. The Islamabad office is not part of the review.

“Through this project we hope to obtain information that will help improve the quality, transparency and consistency in making and communicating decisions, identify any visa officer training gaps, develop working tools for visa officers and make recommendations with respect to ongoing [quality assurance] monitoring of the program,” Ms. Shadd said. The report is due sometime in the fall.

Toronto immigration lawyer Andrew Brouwer said the low acceptance rates coming out of Islamabad fit the pattern he has observed over the last several years wherein the decisions have little to do with the actual situation on the ground.

“There’s been a really disturbing pattern of poor decision making,” Mr. Brouwer said. “Every single case where I’ve begun litigation on a refusal, the government has recognized the problem before going to court.”

Mr. Brouwer said the low acceptance rate in Islamabad is particularly worrisome because Afghanistan is one of eight countries for which Canada has a moratorium on removals because of the level of insecurity there. Other countries for which Canada has a moratorium on removals are Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Liberia, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.

Afghan Refugee Applications to Islamabad, IRB
Islamabad Visa Office

2005 Privately Sponsored Refugee Applications Received—825
Accepted—234; Approval Rate—58.65%

2006 Privately Sponsored Refugee Applications Received—736
Accepted—323; Approval Rate—59.38%

2007 Privately Sponsored Refugee Applications Received—640
Accepted—217; Approval Rate—34.50%

Refugee Protection Division
Claims Referred and Finalized: Afghanistan

2005  Claims Finalized—187
Accepted—138; Approval Rate—74%

2006 Claims Finalized—203
Accepted—167; Approval Rate—82%

2007 Claims Finalized—178
Accepted—122; Approval Rate—69%

2008 (January-May) Claims Finalized—106
Accepted—78; Approval Rate—74%

—Citizenship and Immigration Canada; Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada data

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