Refugees just want the benefit of the doubt
by Sylvain Comeau
Refugee rights advocates want to know why the government can't give refugee claimants the benefit of the doubt. Rivka Augenfeld, president of the Table de concertation des organismes de Montréal au service des refugiés, said that refugees are not knocking on Canada's door by choice.
"Refugees are not immigrants," she reminded the audience at a Concordia panel discussion on March 4. "They don't sit at home for months and plan to move in order to build a better life for themselves. They become refugees because of circumstance. Bad things happen to them, and they are forced to flee."
The biggest snag for refugee claimants is often the lack of documentation or, often, phony documents obtained on the run. To Augenfeld, this is a reliable sign of a real refugee.
"Many people come here with false passports, but that doesn't make them a false refugee. What usually happens is that refugees can't get a passport because they can't find a Canadian embassy, and it's hard to find a sympathetic ear in their own government. So they fall into the hands of people who make fortunes off refugees, who provide them with false passports just to get them here."
Augenfeld insisted that anyone close to the Canadian refugee issue -- including government officials -- knows that claimants can be taken at face value.
"Privately, immigration officials admit that 99.9 per cent of refugee claimants are who they say they are, but they will never acknowledge that publicly."
Manon Brassard of the Immigration and Refugee Board countered that a lack of documentation alone won't keep someone out of Canada. "Not having documents only works against people whose credibility is already in question because of some other reason."
Natalina Ranaudo of the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada said that refugee claimants are given time and leeway in their quest to establish their identity.
"We understand the predicament they're in, but we also have to be concerned with the integrity of the refugee process. We have to know whether someone is a criminal or a terrorist.
"We accept a variety of legal documents -- marriage licenses, birth certificates, school documents, even declarations by third parties. Those actually carry more weight, and while people are trying to prove their identity, they get social services and work permits."
On the issue of keeping out criminals, Augenfeld argued that "most criminals arrive with proper documentation, and they can be deported."
She asked why so many Nazi war criminals were given Canadian citizenship when they arrived with documentation that told authorities just who they were. "A lot of them are still here because they're 'quiet neighbors'; they don't make waves. But if a refugee claimant makes a mistake and commits a stupid crime because he is frustrated and angry, people say, 'See, they are criminals. We knew it.'"
Marian Shermarke, a social worker and Somali community activist, argued that proper documentation is a lot to ask from a refugee.
"When people are running for their lives, they don't have time to hunt around for their library cards or birth certificates. And once they're here, a lot of them tell me that they don't want to go to their embassy [to get documentation] because that would endanger their families at home."
Shermarke said that the refugee process is not immune to arbitrary decision-making by officials, and suggested that even people with proper documentation are sometimes inexplicably denied refugee status.
"My favourite example is of someone I will call 'Ahmed.' Ahmed is famous the world over as an Olympic marathoner. He would have represented Canada at the '96 Olympics if he could have, but he wasn't a Canadian citizen. Ahmed has newspaper articles about himself, and awards that he won; he couldn't hide if he wanted to. But he can't get refugee status."
The panel was presented by the School of Community and Public Affairs, and organized by SCPA students Sue DeAngelis, Sunita Fowser and Colin Brodhead.