Mexican refugees flocking to Canada to escape violence

Posted by admin on Mar 3rd, 2009

By Alexandra Zabjek, Edmonton Journal. March 3, 2009

EDMONTON — Cesar Hidalgo was working in the United States when he received a frantic phone call from his wife in Mexico: their 15-year-old son had been kidnapped. The kidnappers wanted $100,000. The family borrowed money and sold possessions to come up with the cash. They were far short of the demanded sum. Three days later, the teen was released. This was four years ago. It was the start of a journey that took the Hidalgo family from their coastal hometown of Veracruz, to Windsor, Ont., and finally to Edmonton, where they were recently granted refugee status.

“I’m proud to be Mexican. Mexico is beautiful, but right now it’s not good for my sons,” says Hidalgo, 56, a father of two.

For Canadians who have enjoyed sun-drenched Mexican beaches, reports of an increasingly unstable country may seem unreal. But refugee claimants say violence fuelled by powerful drug cartels is threatening the lives of ordinary Mexicans.

With police forces either too scared to stand up to cartels, or entrenched in organized crime themselves, Mexicans say they receive little protection from government institutions. Many believe the violence is fuelling a steady increase in Mexicans seeking refugee status in Canada.

The NAFTA partner has been the top source country for refugee claims in Canada since 2005. It was also the top source country for refugee claims in Alberta for 2007 and 2008, dwarfing the number of claims from other top source countries such as Colombia, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

But for all of the claims made by Mexicans in Alberta, few are accepted. Almost 200 Mexicans claimed refugee status here in the first nine months of 2008; the Immigration and Refugee Board accepted just 15 per cent. It’s a stark contrast to the overall acceptance rate of 58 per cent for all refugee claims in the same time period.

The discrepancy, say immigration lawyers, comes from a government presumption that a democracy such as Mexico protects its citizens.

“The principal reasoning behind these kinds of rejections is because the IRB says the claimant has to show state protection is not available to the claimant. The onus is higher on them to show that protection is not available the more democratic a country is,” says Michael Tilleard, past chairman of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration and citizenship section for northern Alberta.

“Often the IRB decisions will say Mexico is a democracy, or even a fledgling democracy, so you should have recourse to state protection if you’re living in a democratic state.”

Under Canadian law, protection must be granted to people who fear persecution in their home countries based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Protection must also be granted to people who could risk their lives, or face torture, cruel or unusual punishment if they return home.

Some Mexicans whose claims were denied by the IRB have been granted new hearings by the Federal Court of Canada. In at least one case, the court sided with a refugee claimant who says he was being extorted by police and therefore had no reasonable avenue for protection from the state. But in “many, many” other cases, the courts have ruled that government institutions and humanitarian agencies exist to protect Mexican citizens, Tilleard says.

Recent violence in Mexico has generated headlines around the world. There were thousands of homicides in the country last year, among them beheadings, public shootouts and the targeted killings of police officers.

Academics such as Russell Cobb, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Alberta, say diplomatic ties with Mexico likely put pressure on Canada to recognize it as a democracy with functioning institutions. But the reality, he says, is that the government is engaged in a “low-grade civil war” with drug cartels in some parts of the country.

It’s a sentiment shared by a group of Mexican refugee claimants and refugees who gathered recently at Edmonton’s Catholic Social Services office. Among them was Cristina Bringaz, a mother of two from the state of Sinaloa who came to Canada six months ago.

She fled an abusive husband after local police would not help her, she says. Bringaz came to Canada because she thought it would be a safe place for her children.

She was joined by Armando Gobea, 59, from Tampico City who says his business was vandalized and he was threatened after he refused to co-operate with an organized crime group. He fled to Canada, while his wife and children moved to another state in Mexico.

“Today, there’s not any safe place to live in Mexico,” Gobea says through an interpreter. “Mexico is impossible to live in these days.”

Bringaz looked worried when asked what she might do if her claim is denied. She does not know where she might go. She can only wait. “I have faith.”

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