Canada’s Immigration Policy makes it difficult for those fleeing oppressive regimes or civil war to gain refugee status, Stewart Istvanffy said, Montreal refugee lawyer, at a lecture held by the McGill Refugee Research Project (RPR) on Wednesday.
“There is a growing tendency to defend the system rather than the fundamental rights of refugee claimants,” said Istvanffy of those who apply for refugee status in Canada. Claimants who gain refugee status can legally work in Canada or apply for welfare, but are not considered citizens or even permanent residents.
Istvanffy – who has represented refugees in Canada for 20 years – challenged the government’s assertion that, as a sovereign state, it reserves the right to choose who crosses its borders and who gets to stay.
He recounted representing Enrique Falcon-Rios, a man working in Canada for over a decade, who was tortured by the Mexican army in Chiapas at age 17 in December 1998 – with 16 visible cigarette burns on his arm.
Though Falcon-Rios would be in danger of torture upon returning to his country, Canadian immigration refused him a risk assessment. His subsequent plea for citizenship for humanitarian reasons – an expensive and time-consuming process – was also rejected.
“A general rule of international law is – you don’t deport law-abiding people who are raising children in your country.”
Under the current refugee system in Canada, claimants are not guaranteed their right to a lawyer, a court of law, or the protection of family rights. Claimants are also not legally protected from arbitrary detention or deportation to a country where they risk torture or execution.
“People are being put in extreme danger,” Istvanffy commented.
Officers of Citizenship and Immigration rule on refugee claims made at the border by new arrivals, but it often takes months for those claims that are deemed eligible to be processed by the Immigration and Refugee Board. Successful applicants are declared “Protected Persons.”
However, refugees cannot always produce evidence necessary to prove to the Canadian government that they are in danger in their home country. The government is supposed to conduct a pre-removal risk assessment for claimants whose case is rejected, but Istvanffy has often seen the government forgo this step prior to deportation.
“Refugees make great efforts to then get proof, but when presented at the pre-removal risk assessment, this evidence is immediately dismissed as evidence which could have been presented at the refugee border,” Istvanffy said, shaking his head in frustration. “The Court often comes out and says [to me] ‘We don’t want to hear these arguments,’ and they don’t.”
Sarah Hausman, U3 psychology and international development studies major, was struck by the story Istvanffy recounted during the talk of a Nigerian man who was separated from his wife and Canadian-born children when the government refused him refugee status.
“Separating families like this undermines notions of what it means to be Canadian – on what grounds does Canada justify such blatant violations of human rights?”