AN UNCERTAIN WELCOME:
REFUGEES AT CANADA'S VISA POSTS
Processing at Canada's visa posts overseas has for many years been a matter of serious concern to the Canadian Council for Refugees. While some refugees are quickly, efficiently and sympathetically processed for resettlement in Canada, not all experiences are as happy. Our members regularly report on problems encountered in the areas of access to visa offices, treatment of individuals, processing times and variations in standards between visa posts.
In January 1995, in the context of a discussion about anti-racism, the Overseas Protection and Sponsorship Working Group of the CCR decided to conduct a study of visa posts, with a view to exploring the possibility of systemic racism in access to visa posts. A survey was conducted in 1995 and the beginning of 1996 in which individuals, both refugees and refugee workers, in Canada and overseas, were invited to report on their experiences of Canada's visa posts.
The survey results need to be viewed in the context of the many reports that have over the years raised similar concerns. In 1987 the Canadian Jewish Congress report, Race Relations and the Law, written by Tannis Cohen, argued in its chapter on Immigration (Chapter 9) that the unequal distribution of visa posts amounts to systemic racism. Five years later, the CCR Task Force on Overseas Protection (1992) reported that it heard one horror story after another and concluded that the "failings are institutional, endemic, structural. The problems will not go away until the system itself changes" (page 2). Refugee Family Reunification, the report of the CCR Task Force on family reunification published in 1995, drew attention again to the wide-ranging problems with overseas processing and highlighted the particular difficulties associated with the unequal distribution of the visa officers.
In June 1995 the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration issued its report Refugees, Immigration and Gender. It reviewed the systemic barriers to the selection of women refugees for resettlement in Canada, including the barriers to access to the visa officers. Recommendation 14 states "All aspects of the process of selecting refugees abroad should be reviewed from a gender perspective in order to remove the direct and indirect barriers within Citizenship and Immigration Canada's control that may impede women from being selected for resettlement in Canada".
The Immigration Department itself has gone some way towards acknowledging the need for examination and improvement in the area of processing. Working Group #3, a joint governmental and non-governmental committee formed as part of the 1994 Immigration Consultations, noted in relation to resettlement from abroad that Canada "needs to critically assess and improve its performance in a number of areas including: implementation of programs; processing times; due process, i.e. ensuring the equitable treatment of refugee cases by Canada's visa posts..." The November 15, 1994 discussion draft Project Report on the Private Sponsorship of Refugees acknowledges that much of the sponsoring community's criticism of the program is aimed at the overseas part of processing and notes that "complaints are wide-ranging: refusal rates that are too high; processing times that are too slow; inconsistency of practices among offices and regions; lack of response to inquiries". Max Brem's March 1995 report Refugee Processing Abroad: Review of "Best Practices" affirms a number of the concerns raised by NGOs over many years and attempts to offer constructive suggestions in order to improve refugee selection, processing and related issues.
Despite the persistent concerns, overseas processing remains an underreported area. Obtaining a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date picture of what happens to refugees at Canada's overseas visa posts is extremely difficult. The very fact that the posts are overseas means that they cannot be subject to the close scrutiny afforded to in-Canada processes. The information is scattered around the world. Refugees, because of their vulnerability, are among those least likely to lodge complaints. Those who are accepted and resettle in Canada are on balance likely to have had better experiences than those who were rejected, whose complaints, if they have them, will probably never reach the NGOs.
Through this modest survey, the Canadian Council for Refugees has attempted to gather together some information on people's experiences of visa posts, good and bad. The collection is non-systematic and information dates quickly as practices, personnel and circumstances change. Nevertheless, the results, which go significantly beyond the initial concern over access and cover experiences of family sponsorship as well as refugee resettlement, suggest wide variations in perceptions and experiences and point to some serious problems.
A number of key themes emerge:
- access to some visa posts is severely limited.
- there are concerns about the locally-engaged staff at some posts.
- decisions sometimes appear to be arbitrary.
- there are concerns that treatment of refugees is sometimes biased by considerations such as their colour, their wealth or their professional or educational background.
- there are considerable delays, often apparently caused by overwork.
- poor communication often leaves refugees and family members in a state of anxious uncertainty.
- in some cases visa officers appear to be insensitive.
The apparent dramatic inconsistency in standards between visa posts and between individual visa officers calls for a more radical reform than the tinkering undertaken by the government in recent years. The behaviour of local staff in some offices is also of concern and may point to the need for better selection, training and monitoring.
The Immigration Department may also wish to follow up on this survey by conducting its own more scientific study of access at visa posts, to confirm or correct the claims made here. The CCR for its part has committed itself to ongoing monitoring of processing at visa posts.
Canada prides itself on humanitarianism and its visa officers work under difficult circumstances to identify, screen and process refugees. Sometimes the treatment of refugees is of a very high standard and the visa officers earn for Canada its good reputation. This is not however always the case. The Canadian Council for Refugees looks forward to the day when refugees will consistently be met at Canadian visa posts with efficiency, fairness and respect.
The Canadian Council for Refugees gratefully acknowledges the contribution of the many volunteers who made this project possible.
COMMENTS BY CITY/VISA POST
- No specific complaints or problems that refugees and their families have encountered at the Canadian Embassy concerning maltreatment. However, some have mentioned that they feel unsure whether or not their documents are passed on to the appropriate person in the reception. Most refugees say that they have had a warm reception at the visa post when they go in for their interview and that they can approach the immigration officers with any queries. Processing of applications has been speedy (only two weeks from date of application to get an interview in some cases). Interview questions are similar to those of their UNHCR interviews or other embassies screening for resettlement.
- It is easy to access the Embassy, which is in an office tower, but you will not be able to pass the reception unless you have an appointment. Phone access is easier as there are direct lines to visa officers. Most refugees, which are predominantly Burmese, do not attempt going to the embassy unless they have already arranged for an appointment, however.
- The problem in Thailand is that the Burmese refugees are not considered refugees by the Thai authorities but "illegal migrants". Since they are confined to the so-called "safe area" camps outside Bangkok, they encounter problems when attempting to transfer from the camp to Bangkok for the processing of papers. The safe areas are set up by the Thai government for the Burmese who are recognized "persons of concern" to the UNHCR. Furthermore, they do not feel they can trust the Ministry of Interior official in the safe area to forward their papers to the Embassy. The transportation problems seem to be the principal problem for the refugees. They often ask for assistance for transportation in and around Bangkok from the safe areas to process their papers. Some refugees are currently detained in the Special Detention Center where access is difficult even for the embassies. There is always a high risk for the Burmese refugees of being arrested or put in detention. Many times, the departure to Canada can be delayed because of an arrest just before leaving the country. The main delays are thus not due to Canadian processing but rather to Thai exit permits. Some refugees argue that they feel the Embassy is watched by SLORC agents who tip off the Thai authorities. There are no confirmed accounts of this however and the Burmese students are understandably paranoid.
- A number of very friendly officials. One official, found to be nice by one refugee, was said to be impolite, cynical and lacking in understanding of geography and politics by another.
- The receptionist was sometimes unfriendly.
- A Cambodian refugee family in Vietnam had to have three medical exams because they kept expiring before they were issued visas. This cost them a lot of money because each time they had to pay the doctor a bribe in order to receive a "clean" medical report. They feel that the delays were because they were in Vietnam rather than Bangkok (where the visa post is) and were therefore given less priority.
- A Laotian refugee family applied for sponsorship in 1990 and finally arrived in November 1994.
- There have been problems regarding treatment by a particular visa officer who is currently working at the New Delhi visa post. The official explanation while in Kuala Lumpur was that he had a very loud voice and was abrasive. One example is of a Vietnamese Canadian who was continually refused an appointment by his Malaysian secretary. When he finally got an appointment, this visa officer would not let his companion, a Canadian working for CIDA, in and was also yelling at him in a very loud voice.
- The visa officers always answer questions thoroughly and promptly.
- A businessman continually tried to get into the Canadian Embassy in order to join his wife already in Newfoundland. Chinese staff refused to let him in and he was later caught and jailed for three years by the Chinese government for having provided food money for the students at Tiananmen Square. There are more examples of denial of access to the Embassy by the local Chinese staff who rule who gets appointments and gets in. It is a known fact that treatment in the American and British visa posts is superior.
- Even if an applicant has a sponsor, they may encounter difficulties. The Canadian Embassy in India did not even have the case of a person who already had a sponsor.
- A spousal application was refused for no reason. The sponsor was a permanent resident originally from Somalia whose wife had fled to India. She was asked humiliating questions by the visa office. The sponsor was himself arrested by the Indian authorities who claimed that his Canadian-issued travel document was fraudulent and he had to pay a bribe in order to be released. Once at the Canadian visa office, he had to submit a new application. His wife has not yet been contacted by the visa office and this incident took place in February 1995.
- The sponsorship application for a new wife (by arranged marriage) was turned down. A complaint was written and the application was eventually processed. Affluence is the #1 facilitator. It is becoming increasingly difficult for families to sponsor their relatives. Also, to be white and English-speaking is definitely an advantage as opposed to being dark and unable to speak English.
- Some visa officers act like local potentates. One young, unmarried woman applying through family class in Peshawar was asked to stay behind, while her family went to Canada. The visa officer justified this by asking:"Why don't you get married?" Bribery is another problem.
- The Canadian Embassy had asked a family to verify that they did not have a criminal record. In order to do so, the family had to pay a bribe to the Pakistani police. They were advised to see a specific doctor in Karachi which cost them 500 rupees and for the medical examination, they had to pay an additional $2000 US.
- Convention refugees who are sponsored privately and whose immigration processes are completed are not able to go to Canada right away. One example is of an Afghan family sponsored by a group of churches, in which all the family members were cleared except for the mother who was allowed to come only if she had a Minister's Permit. This was approved in April 1995, but the necessary arrangements that are to be made by the visa office have not yet been made for the family to go to Canada. The visa office has not responded to various telex and fax messages regarding this delay.
- There is a guard post outside the Embassy and without an appointment you will not get past the gate. Calls are screened by locally hired staff and unless you sound Canadian or have the name of a visa officer, you will have difficulties arranging an appointment. Refugee processing times are long, due to the large amount of immigration applications. Faxes to the Embassy have not been responded to at all.
- Recently they started accepting many cases of Afghans, including families, although until about 9 months ago the results were nearly 100% negative. There are cases from 1990 and 1991 for which no response has ever been received.
- "Sophisticated" families get responses (e.g. those that speak English or French). Others don't seem to get through.
- In a case of a man dying in Canada whose wife was in Pakistan things went very well: she was well received and a Minister's Permit was issued.
- Long delays in processing visas. In response to inquiries about the status of visa applications, no information is given - applicants are simply told to wait for news. One reason given for the long delay was the absence of a visa officer who had yet to be replaced.
- The visa post was very accessible: there were always a lot of people outside the office, but if you had an appointment it was very easy to get in. The visa officers were pleasant and understood the situation in Afghanistan very well. They were sensitive to this refugee's situation. The interview lasted about 10 minutes and not many questions were asked. The interpreter was quite nice. Processing was delayed because she did not bribe the doctor when she first had her medical examination and she therefore failed it. The second time she bribed the doctor and passed her medical.
- Somali woman in Yemen refused. Interview lasted less than 30 minutes, 20 minutes of which were on mundane matters not related to the basis of the claim. She brought an interpreter, but the officer said she spoke well, so she didn't use the interpreter and perhaps didn't get her points across as well as she might have done. Letter of refusal notes she didn't have a paper from UNHCR, but the visa officer didn't mention this to her. There were reasons for the lack of UNHCR identification (role of UNHCR in Yemen, fact that her situation only became difficult when she was widowed - while 8 months pregnant). She was also rejected on admissibility. She has 6 kids, but she had worked in Yemen and had good support in Canada.
- An Ethiopian woman was refused. Her father was a minister in former government and was murdered. She was hidden by friends. She swore on the Bible that she would tell no one who had hidden her. In the interview she was asked the name and address of where she was hidden. She refused to say, and was badgered by the officer to say. The interpreter agreed that she had been badgered. The letter of refusal says she refused to comply with request for information.
- Professional Somalis (doctors, engineers) seem to be processed quickly and efficiently.
- The visa post works well, but applicants who have been sponsored and accepted may face difficulties from the Turkish authorities who demand bribes. UN office processing is protected but not the Canadian Visa offices.
- All the Canadian officers were friendly, polite and professional. There were toys for the children during the interview.
- The waiting time is too long (one year).
- A female Iranian refugee in Turkey was recently denied access to reception area of the Embassy in Ankara. She was hoping to get an IMM-008. She was questioned by locally hired security staff as to why she had come to the Embassy. She left without being allowed in as she did not want to reveal her reasons for being there. Later she phoned a friend in Canada to ask how she could get into the Embassy as her Turkish visa was about to expire and she fears for her life if she returns to Iran. As a result a desk officer in Hull who deals was contacted. He arranged to have an IMM-008 mailed to her. She received it and returned to the Embassy. This time she got into the reception area where the locally hired receptionist, in a crowded reception area, asked where she had go the forms (as they were not being given out) and why she wanted to emigrate to Canada and what her problem in Turkey was etc etc. The receptionist eventually took the form but the Iranian woman was not at all sure it would be passed on to the visa officers.
- There is a 99.9% rejection rate at the visa post in Damascus. Applications for visiting Canada are always rejected and for applications for sponsorship, there is no chance of appeal if the application has been rejected the first time. There is no opportunity given to explain situations. Also, there is systematic racism in the immigration processing, not from the Canadian staff but from local staff and especially the Syrian Arab clerks, who have openly asked for bribes. Translators tend not to be accurate when interpreting what the applicant is telling them. For Assyrians/Christians, a Muslim translator will be a disadvantage due to the element of pre-judgments.
- The visa post has its own peculiar reading of the law. They put a lot of emphasis on economic integration. They seem to be slow at picking up changes in policy in Canada (e.g. they continue to ask for sponsorship papers for refugees' immediate families). They refuse refugee families on economic criteria. Their caseload must be large because processing takes for ever.
- One refugee sponsorship went well.
- An Afghani living in Canada went to Iran to marry his bribe. He returned to Canada after a month and applied to sponsor his wife. It turned out that his wife was pregnant and the baby was born before the processing was completed. The father contacted the visa post in Damascus and was told that minimum processing time was 6 months, maximum one and a half years. He was also told he would have to reapply because he had to apply for his son, which he did. Subsequently, he was told that he had to get his marriage certificate certified by the Iranian Foreign Office (he wondered why he couldn't have been told this at the beginning). He decided that the only way to make things happen would be to go to Iran himself. The Iranian Foreign Office insisted he produce proof of his Afghan citizenship. The Afghan Embassy wouldn't give it to him because he had fled as a refugee. He had to bribe them to give him the paper to get the certification from the Foreign Office, which he took himself to Damascus because he didn't trust the process. His wife and baby were issued visas. The baby was two years old on arrival in Canada.
- In another similar case a man in Canada sponsored his wife in Iran and was also told he need certification of his marriage certificate. He called on his brother-in-law in Iran to make the arrangements, involving visiting the Afghan Embassy, getting witnesses to swear before a notary, etc. The sponsor had lots of documentation and wedding photos which he tried to submit in Canada but he was told it had to be done in Iran. He has been waiting 18 months and his wife still has not arrived.
- The Canadian Embassy is overcrowded. The line up at 5 am is 2-3 blocks long and those that can afford to pay, jump the queue. Genuine visitors to Canada are deprived of visas. The reputation of the Canadian Embassy is damaged. Staff employed by the Embassy do not like to deal with people of colour and preference is given to wealthy people.
- Excessive delays in the processing of family class sponsorships. Bona fide marriages are questioned which has caused unnecessary delays and complications, some of which have been pending for over three years. There are also problems in obtaining visitor visas for parents wishing to visit Canada for a short time only.
- The Embassy is in an office tower and you will need an appointment to get past the guard post in the hallway. It is impossible to see a visa officer without a UNHCR or NGO referral. Furthermore, security background checks tend to drag on without explanation. One applicant has had three interviews in almost two years and has still not been informed on whether he will be admitted to Canada or not. Many Sudanese refugees are accused of involvement in the SPLA. Security background checks for the region are done through the post in Harare. There must be quicker resolutions to these cases with explanations for the refusal of visas so that appeals can be launched if warranted. The Nairobi office is overwhelmed since the Rwanda crisis and there is a desperate need of more visa officers and of another visa post in East Africa in order to split the regional responsibilities.
- Access to the visa post is very difficult. For a long time the post wouldn't accept Somalis as refugees. A Canadian visiting the post was shocked to hear the attitudes of some officials who said the Somalis aren't refugees, they are abusers.
- A woman in Ottawa was sponsoring her parents. They were accepted 1 1/2 years ago. They passed the interview and medical test. Then they were told to wait to be contacted. What is really difficult is not being told why they are waiting. Efforts by government to improve processing seemed to lead to swifter processing for Somalis for a period of about 7 months (end 92 to beginning 93). It has deteriorated again.
- Processing is extremely slow. A Rwandan family was being sponsored before the April 1994 massacres began. Most of the family was killed but one woman escaped and came to Nairobi. She is still waiting. The visa post claims it can't contact Somalis but their relatives here are able to reach them. Sponsorships take 5 years, so there is no point trying.
- A Somali woman in Ethiopia, 24 years old, single, was refused on successful establishment criterion. It was held against her that she wasn't working, but she didn't have the opportunity where she was.
- The situation is particularly difficult for Somalis in Djibouti. You need to get a UNHCR approval which is very difficult.
- Communications is poor. Papers get lost.
- Good work done in regard to family reunification.
- Excellent experience with the visa officers who are open and forthcoming about individual cases and about general trends in the region. They are also quick to respond to inquiries.
- In a few cases background checks are very difficult to deal with and can take a year before a decision is reached.
- The current staff is courteous, informative and very helpful.
- Out of 6 refugees who were processed through Nairobi, 4 found the officers friendly, 2 said the Kenyans working there were very unfriendly.
- There is a problem with the background checks. People who are innocent are accused of being criminals, and others who are criminals are being accepted. One person committed suicide because of this.
- It takes much too long to get results of the medical examination.
- Medical files are not being kept confidential: receptionists know about the results.
- Service was fast, correct and well-organized.
- Officers were always on time and well-organized.
- Friendly officers immediately give assistance.
- Officers gave the impression that one was appreciated and believed.
- The receptionists, who are the first people you meet, are cold people.
- [Comments from one person processed in the Sudan] Officers always friendly and sympathetic and experienced. The Sudanese employees were very tired and therefore impatient. The filing system was very poor and files went missing (between 1985 and 1990). This applicant did not get an answer. It worked out in the end, but was very long.
- Cairo visa officers should do Sudan but they don't go often enough. Sponsors need to know when the officers will go.
- A representative from the Canadian Embassy in Cairo on a visit to Sudan returned to Cairo a week in advance, allegedly for security reasons, leaving a large number of Sudanese refugees who had already been scheduled for interviews.
- They don't accept refugees. It's hopeless.
- A Liberian "woman at risk" was sponsored to go to Newfoundland in September 1994 but her case was not examined until April 1995. In June 1995, St John's Immigration was informed that the woman could not be found.
- They seem to put all their energies into looking for something to use against the case.
- Bureaucracy and delays in processing visa applications. However, all applicants are treated adequately and professionally once "in the system".
- There is a particular visa officer who is very unresponsive. She has delayed one arrival simply by not issuing a visa quickly enough after the IOM ticket was arranged and never responds to fax inquiries.
- Good Immigration staff, both local and Canadian. Always helpful, responsive and proactive. One individual in particular.
- Once people are seen by a visa officer, treatment is fair. However, some local staff are openly hostile to clients and tend to be anti-semitic and corrupt and make remarks and ask for money. Some of the hatred is inbred and perhaps the hiring of local staff is done without much cultural sensitivity. It would probably be better to hire more educated people at the local level.
- Access is very difficult. A couple who came to Canada as claimants had a 3-year-old daughter in Siberia. There were long delays in her processing and the visa post insisted on her being brought all the way to Moscow. In another case, a young sponsored refugee arrived with his papers saying that the refugee sponsorship was for 2 years, but the sponsoring group had never been asked for this and it wasn't clear anyway what were the special circumstances that demanded a 2 year sponsorship. Several attempts to get an explanation were made without result. Finally they responded that it was an error, but no correction has been made.
- An Afghan, accepted as a privately sponsored refugee, was told that he had to get a paper from the police station as part of the security clearance. Because he was illegally in Moscow, the police refused to give any paper, unless he paid a bribe of US$1,000, later reduced to $700. He went back to the Canadian embassy to explain his predicament, but was simply told that he should get a Russian visa (which was completely impossible). Finally, through a cousin, he managed to find a police officer in another district who gave the paper for under a $100. He has now completed all the formalities and is waiting for a visa. It has been over a year since the sponsorship was submitted. He feels he is living like a prisoner. He cannot work. Because he is not legally in Russia, police will stop him on the street, take him to the police station and take his money away. He therefore avoids going out as much as possible.
- An Afghan refugee family has been waiting more than 2 years for their visa. They were accepted: the father of the family is a highly qualified engineer and was told he was good for Canada. They have received a letter telling them not to contact the Embassy and that the process will be slower if they do. They are not legally in Moscow, they cannot work, they do not receive any money from the UNHCR. Another Afghan family was processed in 9 months, so there is a sense that it is all a lottery.
- Ukrainian visa officers treat Jews differently. There are applicants who pass the criteria for immigration and yet are rejected. Decisions are made on a very narrow basis. Applications are rejected 50% of the time.
- A Turkish Kurd was refused entry to Canada to visit his dying brother, whereas a wealthy cousin with a British citizenship of 10 years was allowed. Another problem is access to the visa post - faxes are unanswered and you cannot get through by phone. Difficulties in getting hold of anyone but the receptionists. Also, people have been denied permission to visit Canada to see dying family members. In one particular case, a visa officer justified this denial by saying that the family member was "dying anyway, so why bother?".
- They return your phone calls.
- In one case they called up someone and accused her of lying, but afterwards the lawyer followed up and it turned out that they had got some files mixed up.
- Algerians presenting their case are very badly treated. They seem to have caught the French phobia of Algerians.
- Probably they have a too heavy caseload. One medical clearance was waiting for over a year, until the medical was out of date.
- Officers were friendly. Everything about the service was good.
- The visa post was quite accessible - there were always many people outside the office but if you had an appointment there was no problem in getting in. Correspondence with the post through mail worked well. Visa officers overall were very helpful and nice. The interview lasted about 15 minutes. Questions were asked about the situation in Bosnia, the danger and the persecution. The refugee was also asked about her working experience, her family in Bosnia and her sister in Montreal. Questions were all quite general. She had already filled out a detailed form describing her situation.
- Everyone was very nice, but officers lose their files which leaves people waiting and hoping in vain (this person's first application was lost). Waiting times are too long (5 years) before you can get an appointment. They are very busy but treat people well, and are patient even with people that are making trouble.
- During the Bulgarian exodus years, there were many complaints regarding the differences in treatment of Bulgarians and Yugoslavs, where Yugoslavs were favoured.
- There is a priority to select couples who are in a mixed marriage.
- Great assistance from a visa officer in facilitating an excluded Bulgarian's return to his fiancée in Canada.
- Things go well.
- A woman who had been raped and was emotionally disturbed was processed very quickly: she arrived in 4 months. The visa officers there have been sensitized.
- Applications do not move and reasons are found for not doing the processing.
- Posts in Central America are good and Guatemala especially.
- Cases are treated expeditiously. They have a good understanding of the complexity of the situation. Willing to meet with sponsoring groups. The situation in Guatemala is in any case extraordinary. The people at the Embassy are themselves at risk. They want to help.
- Very good coordination during the crisis.
- A Rwandan woman who was turned back at the border when she attempted to make a refugee claim was treated very sensitively by the visa officer, accepted and processed quickly.