14 March 2003

Since the end of January, the Canadian government has forcibly returned to the United States hundreds of people trying to seek Canada’s protection. They are given an appointment to return to Canada to pursue their claim, but, as the Canadian government is fully aware, many of them are detained by the US authorities and therefore unable to return to Canada. Others avoid being directed back by trying to make an appointment in advance, but the immigration department has allowed the system to backlog and waits are up to 7 weeks, during which time many families have no means of supporting themselves.

The Canadian Council for Refugees has asked some of these claimants why they are seeking refugee protection, what the impacts of the Canadian policies have been for them and why they don’t make a refugee claim in the US.

The following are some of the answers.

Why are you claiming refugee protection?

A South American woman accompanied by her two twin daughters: "I am a victim of domestic violence, someone linked with the authorities. We are afraid of being killed by him."

A South American woman: "I received death threats from the guerillas, who have also killed two members of my family. If I return, I could be killed."

A woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo worked for the former president who was assassinated. Her boss was a former Kabila supporter but was condemned to death by the new regime for having plotted to remove Kabila. She has been threatened, harassed, raped and tortured. If she returns, her life would be threatened.

A Sri Lankan woman with her 14 year old son reported that her son was asked by the Tigers to join them and he refused. She stole her son away and came to the US. Were she to return she is afraid that the son may be forcibly taken away. A classmate of her son’s experienced this.

A Sri Lankan man suffered extortion, was forcibly taken by the Tigers and was later caught by the army and jailed for a month, during which time he was assaulted several times. He continues to suffer the physical consequences of the assault and was hospitalized in the US. Should he return to Sri Lanka he is fearful that is life will be threatened by both the army and the Tigers.

A Tanzanian man was a member of an opposition political party. Because of his activities he was arrested and imprisoned for 5 months. He was so badly beaten while in prison that his left hand was broken. He was hospitalized and then returned to prison. After he was released from jail he heard that he was being accused of stealing police weapons, so he left the country. He fears the threat of torture in jail should he return to his home country.

Two Tanzanian women were caught up in the turmoil around the 2002 elections. One woman was a journalist, the other a radio announcer. Both were reporting the facts as they saw them, and found themselves fired and being threatened by the party in power. One woman was detained, beaten and raped in the detention centre and only got away because she needed medical assistance. They fear that they will be killed if returned to their home country, as there is an arrest warrant out for one of them and possibly for the other as well.

A young woman from Rwanda’s husband was killed in January 2003. She feared for her own life as well as the lives of her children. She left her children in the care of a Catholic agency and hopes to bring them to Canada once she gains status.

A woman from Guinée was forced to marry a man her father’s age. She had 2 children outside of this marriage with her boyfriend. Her family now wishes to perform FGM on her youngest child. She had FGM performed on her as a child and does not want to subject her daughter to this. She fled for her daughter’s sake, to avoid FGM.

A woman from Pakistan’s husband was murdered 7 years ago because of fighting among her relatives. The disputes were over property. As her husband had died, and her son was still quite young, she did not feel safe at home. The government doesn’t protect homes led by women.

A couple from Pakistan left home because theirs was a love marriage against the wishes of both sets of parents. The response of the husband’s parents worsened significantly when they discovered that the wife was not able to have children. They attacked her physically on several occasions, hurting her badly, and threatened to kill her.

A woman from the Congo reports that she is fleeing the head of the police force that had arrested her husband. He began coming by her house and threatening to sexually assault her as soon as her neighbours were away. She believed him, knowing that the police would not protect her.

A man from Pakistan was forced to flee because he was politically active and got on the wrong side of a powerful and violent political party, whose members attacked him and threatened his life. He moved around within Pakistan trying to avoid them, but they were always able to track him down.

A 16 year old boy from Pakistan is fleeing gang-related problems. His father was killed and the family fled. His brother was granted asylum in the UK.

What happened when you were directed back from the Canadian border?

A Pakistani man described how his family was directed back. They arrived at the Canadian border at 8 p.m. They spent two hours having their photos and fingerprints taken and showing their documents. They were then told to follow Canadian officials who took them to a vehicle. The doors of the vehicle were locked and the officials told the family that they were being taken back to the US. The man cried that they didn’t want to return to the US. The family then spent about 20 hours being processed by INS.

An African woman had only been in the US a day before she reached the Canadian border to make a claim and was directed back. She was in a state of extreme distress and was visibly suffering from the trauma of events in her home country (including bruises and broken teeth as a result of assault by the military). She reports having been tortured and that her husband and children were killed. She has no resources or contacts in the US who could assist her, and was frantic about what she was to do in the US. She spent the first night after being directed back in the bus station in Plattsburgh.

A Guatemalan family, Pedro and Nina and their two daughters, aged 2 and 1, came up to the Canadian border at 10 p.m. At first the Canadian official simply told them to to go back and return the next day. They responded that they had no place to go and no money. They were then called in to have photos and fingerprints taken, have their weight and height measured, and have photocopies of their documents made. This took about an hour. They were told they could sleep there. The next morning, at about 11:30, the immigration official told the family that they couldn’t apply that day: they would have to go back to the US and return in 7 weeks’ time. Pedro responded: "We have no money, no status, we will be deported." The immigration official said that the US immigration wouldn’t do anything, wouldn’t deport him, because they had an appointment. Nothing would happen, they said. The Canadian authorities took the family over to the US officials, to whom they handed all of their papers, including the papers with the appointments to return to Canada. Then the US officials questioned Pedro and Nina. Late in the evening they announced that Pedro would be detained on a $5,000 bond. The family has no way of coming up with $5,000: they travelled overland from Guatemala, doing odd jobs to pay their way up to Canada. Nina was sent with the children into the care of the Salvation Army, while Pedro disappeared into the detention system. At first, Nina did not know where he was. Finally he was able to call and reported that telephone access was limited and that conditions in the jail were very difficult. Pedro is currently in a county jail, but this is not his final destination: he will be moved somewhere else, depending on which jails have space. Nina has absolutely no resources to get any bond money together. Her two-year old is constantly asking for her father.

A Pakistani man directed back from the Canadian border was detained by the US authorities. He reports that he was trembling while he was being taken away: it was the first time in his life that he had been arrested. He was taken eventually to Oneida County Jail. The guards there treated him and the others in his situation as criminals. As far as the guards were concerned, only criminals go to jail. For the first 72 hours that he was at the county jail he was confined to his cell, except for once when he was taken out for a medical exam. He was not able to call out or receive calls, to take a shower or talk to any of the other detainees. He was in a cell alone, with a toilet in the cell. Meals were given to him in the cell. After the first 72 hours, he was able to go out to shower and make phone calls. Someone paid his $1,500 bond after 6 days. He doesn’t know who. When he was released he was just dropped at a bus station, even though he had no money and was now 4 hours drive from the border. Fortunately someone from the Salvation Army picked him up, drove him to Albany and bought him a bus ticket so that he could rejoin his family.

Is there a problem for you in waiting for your appointment to make a claim in Canada?

From a Pakistani man who is afraid of the March 21 deadline for Pakistani males to register: "The waiting is too much. There needs to be more people at the border. March 21 is the last date, then there is too much problem. Maybe detain people. All people afraid. Waiting is a problem. I am afraid of March 21. Maybe American Immigration will detain me and I have to pay $5000 bond, and I have no money. I am scared after 21 March."

"Children haven’t been to school for months and there’s nothing here. I can’t see a future for them here. We cannot go out, border police surround here."

"Waiting 3 weeks for my appointment date at the border. I spend so much money to come to this country, and now spending so much on motel. $145/week, and it is not a good place at all... I am in serious money problem."

"We have run out of money... My stepbrother is willing to help us when we show up in Canada."

A South American family with two young children: "We do not have anywhere to stay. We do not have money to keep paying for the hotel. Our two children are asthmatic."

"We have run out of money."

A Pakistani family reports that it is too expensive to be waiting at the border. They are almost out of money. Most of the money they wanted to bring to Canada is gone.

A woman is staying with a man she met in Buffalo. She did not appear to be comfortable with him (he listened in on the interview and put his arm on her shoulder). After he left, she gave a look that said "what are my options?"

For a Tibetan woman, being apart from husband in Canada is the most difficult part.

Why don’t you make your refugee claim in the US?

A Pakistani man spoke of his fear as a Muslim in the US since September 11. "We are afraid here in the USA. Daily, there is a new law for people, Muslims. I am very afraid in the States."

A Guatemalan family responded "In the USA there are many illegals - no help, no work. People

wait for years to get permission to work – we can’t afford this. We don’t believe we would get a fair hearing for our claim."

"I don’t want to claim in US because my family’s in Canada."

"Being a Muslim, everyone is afraid, especially being a Muslim, being a Pakistani. We don’t know what the aims will be after Iraq, you know about the registration... We have been deceived. Why should people who took advantage of immigration be penalized? .... They should not penalize Muslims or Pakistanis. I am afraid of detention... I could have applied for political asylum in the US, but they deport people rather than hear their claims wholly. Canada should continue to be a haven."

"The US is very difficult for us. Friends have said that they wouldn’t be given asylum, the procedure is very long and they hate Muslims here. I would try here, but advised not to. I’m afraid here."

"I cannot claim asylum in US because I have been here for over 1 year. I did not claim when I arrived because I was waiting for the condition to change back home."

"We have relatives in Canada and we don’t know anything about the system in the US."

"Canada protects refugees better than the US."

"My relatives are in Canada."

"My sister is in Canada."

A woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo chooses Canada because of language and because Canada appears to be more socially conscious.

A Sri Lankan man has brothers in Canada but knows no one in the US.

Two Tanzanian women say they do not feel safe in the U.S. They have seen families in U.S. detained for no reason, children included. They feel that there is no place else to go and Canada is the only country being fair at the moment. They want to have the ability to stand up for rights and feel safe doing it.

A woman from Rwanda does not want to claim asylum in USA because she doesn’t know anyone there. Her sister is in Ottawa, and she wants to join her.

A woman from Guinée says she doesn’t know anyone in either USA or Canada, but has been told that they speak French in Canada, so she can at least get by.

A woman from the Congo has a husband in Canada who has already been accepted as a refugee.

A Pakistani youth consulted a lawyer because of the INS registration requirements. The lawyer advised NOT to register unless married to US citizen.

Some claimants have been in the US for several years. We asked "Why didn’t you claim refugee status before?"

"I came to the US because of life threat. I came on a visitor’s visa and never thought of claiming refugee status in the US because I’m a qualified person and applied for jobs. The company sponsored working visa for professionals—good for 3 years, renewable and after 6 years you have to leave the country for 1 year and then Sept 11th, then October I was laid off. I was working laymen jobs and not thinking that they’d deport us, rather they’d accommodate us, but we’ve stayed here for long and rules getting tighter and tighter and 21 March coming along."

A couple explains that they did not make an asylum claim upon entering the US because they never went to a lawyer and did not know that this option was open to them. Their visa expired and they have been living in the US without status.