Rejected by Canada, Rwandan pleads for 11th-hour intervention

Posted by admin on Mar 24th, 2010

Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Mar. 24, 2010

Behind the fine eyeglasses of Charlotte Umutesi lie dark, withdrawn eyes. The 35-year-old elderly-care worker doesn’t speak much these days. When she does, she says she hardly eats and hardly sleeps, jolted awake night after night by nightmares of her past. She came to Canada five years ago as a refugee from Rwanda, fleeing a genocidaire she insists killed her husband, sister and parents. She claims the man beat her and sexually assaulted her, and has since attacked her brother after Ms. Umutesi testified against him in a tribunal. She fears he now wants to kill her, too.

“ She has the same profile as people who are accepted [for residency], and yet she’s refused. ”— Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees

“I’m very scared,” she says quietly, wrapped in a coral-coloured scarf and sitting in the Edmonton-area home of her aunt. “They’re going to kill me.”

Canada, however, does not believe Ms. Umutesi and rejected her application to stay in the country. Now, with her legal avenues nearly exhausted and barring intervention from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, Ms. Umutesi is poised to be the first person to be deported from Canada to Rwanda since its 1994 genocide.

Advocates, spearheaded by the local francophone association, say she is the victim of an arbitrary system of evaluation.

“She has the same profile as people who are accepted [for residency], and yet she’s refused,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “The result of the whole thing is you get people like Charlotte who draw the short straw, and now the government is spending lots of money to remove her to the benefit of nobody whatsoever.”

Her aunt Nathalie Uwantege, a French teacher, is hoping for a last-minute intervention.

“We want to ask for grace. We want, if possible, to ask for them to review the case. She does not pose a risk to this country. In fact, I think she’s an asset.”

Ms. Umutesi’s Canadian experience began five years ago. She says that on Sept. 16, 2005, she testified at a Rwanda tribunal against a man she identifies as Gakire, whom she accuses of killing her family (the Canadian government doubts the man exists). Twelve days later, “Gakire” broke into her home, beating and raping her, she claims. “He threatened that if I returned to the [trial] he would not just rape me again, but kill me,” she writes in an account provided to her lawyer.

Charlotte Umutesi and her aunt Nathalie Uwantege, St. Albert., Alta. (Jimmy Jeong For The Globe and Mail.)

Charlotte Umutesi and her aunt Nathalie Uwantege, St. Albert., Alta. (Jimmy Jeong For The Globe and Mail.)

She fled and arrived in Canada five weeks later, having sold her home and store and left her two grown children. She applied for refugee status that day. She has since settled in Edmonton, where she has an apartment and a job, and married a Calgary man.

In 2007, Immigration and Refugee Board judge William Davis ruled that Ms. Umutesi did not qualify for refugee status, citing “serious inconsistencies, contradictions and omission” in her story. He noted in his ruling that she obtained both a medical report and travel visa from a man with the same name, failed to produce documents proving the death of her family and her own injuries, said she mixed up many of her dates. He questioned even whether she was, in fact, a Tutsi, the ethnic group targeted in the genocide, deciding she was only by granting her “the benefit of any doubt which I have.”

“Everything she has said they said is a lie,” Ms. Uwantege says, arguing that her niece has an eighth-grade education and suffered a traumatic experience, leading to the inconsistencies. She says the requests for photos and documentation of the attacks are “absurd.”

“It’s a poor country. Who would think of taking a shot of that? Who even has a camera?” says the teacher, who came to Edmonton in 1996.

Ms. Umutesi then applied for residency under humanitarian and compassionate grounds. She was rejected last November. She might have appealed, but her lawyer said Legal Aid, a funding body for cases involving low-income people, had only paid him to file the initial application. He suggested she ask Legal Aid to find a new lawyer to file an appeal. She didn’t file one.

Ms. Umutesi’s new Ottawa-based lawyer, Jacques Bahimanga, says an appeal would have allowed them to demonstrate the threat he believes she faces. As evidence, the family produces a Rwandan news article, though it is far from being a smoking gun – the source of its material is the family itself, speaking about their concern that Gakire remains free. A printed photo said to be Ms. Umutesi is of another woman.

Last month, Ms. Umutesi received her final rejection, a federal notice saying “you would not be subject to risk of persecution, torture, risk to life or risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment” if sent back.

“You must leave Canada immediately.”

Ms. Umutesi’s passport has expired, so she is awaiting a new one from the Rwandan embassy. Once she has it, she’ll be immediately deported. Ms. Umutesi says her last hope of staying in Canada is a direct intervention from Mr. Kenney or for a judge to grant Mr. Bahimanga’s last-minute request for an appeal. A spokesman for Mr. Kenney denied the minister has the power to intervene.

A removal to Rwanda wasn’t possible until recently. Since 1994, Canada had abided by a “Temporary Suspension of Removal” to Rwanda – only dangerous criminals could be sent back to the country. But in July, 2009, the federal government rescinded the TSRs for Rwanda, Liberia and Burundi, citing “improved conditions” there.

Olivia Chow, the federal New Democrat critic for immigration, opposes lifting the TSR for Rwanda at all but said that “even just on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, this woman should be allowed to stay in Canada.”

In a ruling against Ms. Umutesi, the government noted that between 16 and 22 genocide survivors had been murdered last year in Rwanda, many after testifying, but said it couldn’t prove she faced the same fate.

“They’re minimizing the risk,” Ms. Uwantege says. “Even if it was one person [killed,] would you want to go back to be the second?”

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