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In response to a recent series of rejections of Eritrean refugee applicants at the Canadian visa office in Cairo, the Canadian Council for Refugees undertook an analysis of 17 cases, all decided by one visa officer.
The analysis reveals serious problems in decision-making in a number of areas.
- The visa officer lacked basic knowledge of realities in Eritrea, including facts about the principal reasons refugees flee Eritrea. She failed to conduct relevant research to address the gaps in her knowledge.
- The visa officer made some basic errors in applying the refugee definition. She misunderstood the role of “durable solutions” and wrongly stated that one could not be a refugee on the basis of a refusal to perform military service.
- In all cases, the applicant was found to be not credible. Departmental guidelines for assessing credibility were not followed: applicants were not given the benefit of the doubt, the visa officer often failed to give clear reasons for disbelieving the applicant, testimony was frequently rejected based on speculation rather than documented evidence, applicants were sometimes not given an opportunity to respond to concerns and when they were, their explanations were not seriously considered. The visa officer made arbitrary assumptions about the beliefs and knowledge of Pentecostals and concluded that applicants were not Pentecostal if their responses did not meet her expectations. She frequently based her finding that the applicant was not credible on peripheral matters, failing to take account of the totality of the circumstances, including the prevalence of grave human rights abuses in Eritrea.
- She tested membership in a faith community (Pentecostal Christianity) through questions focused on religious doctrine, an approach that is flawed because adherents are not necessarily knowledgeable about their faith. The approach was particularly problematic in these cases, as the visa officer lacked knowledge of Eritrean Pentecostalism and relied instead on speculation about what Pentecostals should know.
- The evidence suggests that the visa officer may have been biased against Pentecostals. In some cases she mentioned unnecessarily that she was Catholic and challenged applicants on their reasons for converting to Pentecostalism. Some applicants felt that her words and demeanour conveyed hostility towards Pentecostals.
- The visa officer repeatedly failed to take account of documentary evidence submitted, such as the applicant’s written account of why they fled Eritrea and supporting documents. In some cases she does refer to the written evidence, but only to allege an unspecified contradiction between the oral and written testimony. In one case where she does specify the alleged contradiction, the visa officer appears to be in error.
- Although highly sceptical about applicants’ testimony, the visa officer was insufficiently critical of evidence from other sources. She relied on untrustworthy internet evidence to reject one applicant’s testimony.
- The visa officer failed to take seriously into consideration applicants’ allegations that they had suffered serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and atrocious conditions of detention. She was also insensitive to the possibility that traumatic experiences might affect their testimony, or that a woman who has suffered sexual violence may be uncomfortable testifying through a male interpreter.
- The visa officer appears to have used a poor interview technique. There are reports of her checking the internet during the interviews, cutting off applicants, appearing angry, mentioning her own religious affiliation and appearing hostile to Pentecostals.
- The visa officer did not fully follow CIC guidelines on using interpreters. She was insensitive to the communications barriers inherent in interviewing through an interpreter.
- There are weaknesses in the visa officer’s note-taking. The notes are sometimes unclear and may not be comprehensive.
The problems in these cases highlight the systemic shortcomings in refugee decision-making at Canadian visa offices. Visa officers are often inadequately trained, decisions are rarely reviewed by the courts or monitored internally, and there are few witnesses to interviews, which are not recorded. The system thus lacks accountability.
It is possible that there are similar patterns of flawed decision-making occurring at other visa offices, with no one available to draw attention to them.
Recommendations to Citizenship and Immigration Canada:
- Re-open all negative decisions on refugee cases by this visa officer.
- Relieve this visa officer of responsibility for making further refugee decisions.
- Publish the report of the Quality Assurance assessment of privately sponsored refugee decisions.
- Urgently put in place measures to ensure improved refugee decision-making at visa offices by strengthening guidelines and training of visa officers and instituting regular monitoring of compliance with the guidelines, in the areas of:
- Conduct of interviews;
- Use of interpreters;
- Institute audio recording of interviews.
- Review existing codes of conduct governing visa officers and mechanisms for monitoring compliance, and strengthen them as necessary to promote appropriate attitudes towards and treatment of applicants.
- Develop a transparent and meaningful process for reviewing and re-opening problematic decisions and for interventions by NGOs regarding problematic trends in decision-making at visa offices.
The full report is available at http://ccrweb.ca/files/CairoConcerns.pdf