Identical refugee claims, but two rulings

Posted by admin on Sep 18th, 2004

Toronto Star, 18 September 2004
Hicham Saffieddine

Two Palestinian brothers lived nearly identical lives — until they came to Canada and applied for refugee status. Mohamad Sakr was accepted. Despite the similarity of their claims, his older brother Fouad was rejected. The contrasting outcomes point to a flawed system badly in need of an overhaul, members of refugee support groups say.

The Sakr brothers claimed asylum in Canada in 2001 on the basis of persecution by a Palestinian militia in the Ein El-Helweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon. They were to appear before an Immigration and Refugee Board member in Montreal in May 2003, but Mohamad missed the hearing.

A different refugee board member later heard his claim — and granted him refugee status. Fouad’s claim, from the original hearing, was rejected. He faces deportation but has appealed.

“How is this possible?” Fouad asks. “My brother and I have almost the same story, we were even issued the same threatening note (by the Fatah militia in Lebanon).”

“I fall into despair every time I think of my ordeal. I beseech the Canadian government to look into this; they should summon both judges and inquire as to why this happened.”

The Sakr family was among the thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled to Lebanon following the creation of Israel in 1948. In 1972, young Fouad left Lebanon in search of work and a better life in Kuwait. His brother followed him. He had a series of good jobs, which included being a paramedic in the Kuwaiti army. But the Sakrs’ good fortune came to an abrupt end when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had lent vocal support to Saddam. The Kuwaiti authorities deported scores of Palestinians. For the stateless Sakrs, that meant going back to Ein El-Helweh camp.

In 1996, the Sakrs’ father, who had worked for the supplies and provisioning division of Arafat’s Fatah militia in Ein El-Helweh, died. According to the Sakrs, Fatah organizers repeatedly tried to coerce them into replacing their father. In July 2001, Fouad was imprisoned for 11 days and forced to join the militia’s ranks, he says.

Although he acquiesced to the demand, he had other plans. After three months of service he fled to Canada, arriving in Montreal in November 2001, a few months after his brother. The threatening note Fouad refers to is a memo, dated December, 2001, warning him of “torture till death” if he failed to return to Ein El-Helweh and the militia.

Fouad’s unsuccessful claim for asylum has left him disillusioned with Canada’s refugee process, and he’s not the only one complaining. Dozens of Palestinian refugees and their supporters in the Montreal area founded a coalition in January, 2003, calling on the government to grant asylum to all Palestinian refugees coming from camps in Lebanon or the occupied territories.

The Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees argues the decision to reject Fouad and other claimants from the camps — aside from reflecting the arbitrariness of the process — runs contrary to Canada’s international obligations and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

“These Palestinians are stateless and with no economic, social or political rights. Most of them are born refugees long before they claim … refugee status in Canada,” says coalition spokesperson Ahmed Mustafa. The immigration board member who issued the decision questioned the credibility of Fouad’s story of persecution and ruled he is an economic, rather than a political, refugee. Board spokeswoman Melissa Anderson said the board cannot comment on specific decisions but added: “Our selected members are independent decision-makers with specialized training. By law, 10 per cent of these members have to be lawyers.”

Last March, the Citizenship and Immigration Department announced changes “to eliminate political patronage, strengthen the criteria for the (Immigration and Refugee) board and increase parliamentary review.”

The coalition maintains that some policies still in place — such as having single-member panels review refugee claims and the delayed implementation of a refugee appeal division — continue the “lottery” character of the refugee tribunals. The ministry says it is focusing first on the backlog of refugee claimants waiting for hearings.

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