The persecuted


The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, April 28, 2007 

The current disarray among Canada's refugee officials may be causing drastic slip-ups, if two cases of Coptic Christians seeking asylum here are any indication. 

A family of Coptic Christians who fled from Egypt to escape religious persecution has been told they cannot stay in Canada, even though the Federal Court of Canada found the Immigration and Refugee Board's Refugee Protection Division made "many errors" in ruling against them. 

The couple has been waiting almost three years to have their case settled, and now has two toddlers, both Canadian citizens. Their lawyer, Chantal Desloges, predicts it may well be another three years before their fate is finally determined. If the case ends in deportation, their children will either have to return "home" to an Egypt they have never seen, or stay in Canada without their parents.  

The family's case has highlighted many difficulties in Canada's refugee system, particularly for Egyptians claiming religious persecution. According to one advocate, about 100 Egyptian Coptic families are in hiding in Canada or waiting for a refugee hearing.

In 2006, 36 of 71 refugee claimants from Egypt were accepted into Canada. Several are in Ottawa, but they are unwilling to come forward for fear of reprisals against family left behind in Egypt, or arrest if they are here in Canada illegally. Just four months ago, another Coptic Christian was sent back to Egypt, after the Refugee Protection Division decided it did not believe his claim he would be tortured there.

Then, just a few weeks after, clandestine videotapes were made in Egypt that showed the man with deep open wounds on his back. Galvanized, then-Immigration minister Monte Solberg issue a temporary resident permit that allowed the man to return. Ms. Desloges, who also represented this man, said: "I was ... infuriated that several levels of our government had labelled this man as a liar and refused to open their eyes to the reality in Egypt. 

"The fact that we were able to obtain objective proof of torture in this case was quite remarkable -- how many others are there who don't obtain this proof and just disappear after removal?" 

The 57-year-old man is now working as a waiter in Toronto. He has asked that his name not be used because he fears reprisals against his family in Egypt. His reticence about making his name public puts the Egyptian government in a difficult position, says Mahmoud El Saeed, Egypt's ambassador to Canada.

With no name, how can Egyptian officials go after the police that this man says tortured him? The BBC recently carried stories about a video circulating on the Internet showing Egyptian police torturing a man and "those officers are now in prison," says Mr. El Saeed. "I'm not telling you there are no problems.

There are extremists on both sides. There are no angels." Still, Mr. El Saeed says, most refugee claimants exaggerate so they can immigrate to Canada. In another current case, 30-year-old Atef Botros says he and his wife, Mona Khalil, 26, fled their apartment in Alexandria, on Egypt's Mediterranean coast, in June, 2004, after Muslim extremists broke in and beat him in front of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child.

The couple moved in with an uncle in Cairo, then left for Canada a few months later, applying for refugee status when they landed in Toronto. According to documents submitted to the Refugee Protection Division, Mr. Botros tried to telephone for help just before the attack, but found his phone lines had been cut. His wife ran to the apartment balcony, screaming for help. Several neighbours came to their aid, including a nearby Muslim, who offered a glass of water. 

The couple reported the incident to police, but officials refused to pursue it, saying the matter was "too sensitive."  They threatened to kill me, as well as my wife and our as-yet-unborn child," Mr. Botros said in the documents to the refugee protection division. For almost three years now, the family has been living day-by-day in their Mississauga apartment. Mrs. Botros, who had been an accountant in Egypt, has just recently started working in a coffee shop.

Mr. Botros, also an accountant, now works as a coffee machine technician. Mr. Botros is voluble about their situation, but his wife sits silent as two-year-old Carol, and her little brother, Kyrellos, clamber into her lap. Mrs. Botros looks away as she hears her husband tell their story yet again, gazing out the window or down at her hands. Finally, tears slide down her cheeks. 

"I lost my life," she told the Citizen. "But here it is still better," she said through interpreter Majed El Shafie, himself a religious refugee. He added: "She would be afraid for her children and her husband (if they were to return)." 

Mr. El Shafie was born in Cairo to a prominent Muslim family, but converted to Christianity when he was 18, much to his relatives' horror. They now refuse to have anything to do with him. He was arrested in Egypt shortly after he became involved in fighting for the civil rights of Egyptian Christians. He says he was tortured, sustaining deep wounds to his back. Through Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he was accepted as a political refugee, and eventually settled in Toronto where he developed One Free World, a human rights organization focused on religious persecution.

Most of its clients are Christian, but it has represented Jewish and Muslim clients as well. Egypt is roughly 90 per cent Muslim, with the remaining 10 per cent is largely Coptic Christian, a branch of the Orthodox Christian church that originated in Egypt and dates back to the first century. Egypt's legal system is derived largely from the Napoleonic Code, but family law is primarily based on the religious law of the individual concerned, which for most Egyptians is sharia, or Islamic, law. 

There have been persistent reports throughout the Middle East of Muslim men luring or kidnapping young Christian girls and forcibly converting them to Islam. Christian families claim their daughters have been abducted and held against their will; Muslims say the girls went of their own volition. 

Mr. El Saeed denies that there are concerted plots to convert Christian girls, but Mr. Botros said he got caught up in just such a situation when his church in Alexandria asked him to help a 24-year-old university student, Amira Magdi, who disappeared without any word to her family.

When Ms. Magdi finally got in touch, she said she had been forced to marry a 60-year-old man and threatened with death if she were to return to Christianity. At the request of his priest, Mr. Botros arranged to spirit Ms. Magdi away at 4 a.m. while her husband was at prayer. He took the shaken woman to his house where Mrs. Botros tried to comfort her, and her own family came to visit before she was whisked off to a monastery for safekeeping. 

The next morning, attackers broke into the Magdi home and beat the family, including the girl's younger brother, who told them about Mr. Botros, and pointed out his house. Before long, the gang was pounding on Mr. Botros's door.  

Despite this testimony, Canada's Refugee Protection Division ruled in 2006 that Mr. Botros was not entirely credible, that Egyptian police could have given him any protection he needed and that the family would have been safe enough moving to Cairo, a city of seven million; they did not need to be in Canada. 

The Federal Court confirmed that ruling Feb. 2, 2007, even though Judge Johanne Gauthier ruled the Refugee Protection Division made "many errors" in assessing Mr. Botros's credibility and whether Egyptian authorities would be able to protect him and his family. 

Three weeks ago, on April 5, the Botros's lawyer, Ms. Desloges, filed an application with Citizenship and Immigration Canada asking that the family be allowed to remain in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. So why does the Canadian government have such trouble believing the refugee claimants? Melissa Anderson, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board, says the Refugee Protection Division relies on reports from a variety of sources, including Amnesty International, the Red Cross, and the U.S. State Department.

Canada also has its own research staff and reports on various countries. But the burden of proof is on the claimant, not on the government. Ms. Desloges says the U.S. State Department's country report glosses over problems in Egypt because it wants to maintain good relations. "They sugar coat the truth," she says, "and then in Canada we ... get the impression that it's not so bad." 

Consequently, she says, a board member hearing a refugee claim is likely to be skeptical. "The persecution of Christians in Egypt is not officially state-sanctioned, but the Egyptian government relies heavily on the Muslim fundamentalist vote, so it turns a blind eye to the mistreatment," says Ms. Desloges. 

"It also does not help that the Christians themselves are afraid to speak out, and will sometimes even deny being persecuted for fear of making their situation even worse." In most cases, the Refugee Protection Division "panel" that hears these cases is made up of just one person.

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of 2001 called for an appeal division, but that was never implemented. According to the government website: "The current system is fully in accord with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international obligations and remains fair and generous even without an appeal on merit." The Federal Court can look over a few cases, as it did in the Botros case, but its scope is limited to reviewing the refugee board procedures, not the case itself. 

"It's totally inadequate," says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "Nine out of 10 cases don't even get leave to appeal." Even if the court finds the board has made mistakes, "it has to be unreasonably wrong" before the court can overturn it, Ms. Dench says.  

Nicole Demers, Bloc Quebecois MP for Laval, has submitted a private members bill that would require the Refugee Appeal Division to be set up at last. In the past week, her bill passed committee and will now go back to the House of Commons. But the problems don't end there. The RCMP have charged one immigration judge with allegedly offering to approve the refugee application of a South Korean woman in exchange for sex.

A second member also stopped hearing refugee cases after complaints of misconduct of a sexual nature against him. In Quebec, an adjudicator admitted to taking money for approving immigration applications. In the past few months, Immigration and Refugee Board chairman Jean-Guy Fleury resigned when it became clear the Conservative government wanted to appoint some adjudicators itself. 

Then in March, the five-member advisory panel that recommends qualified candidates for adjudicators also resigned over the issue of whether the government of the day should make direct appointments of adjudicators. In the meantime, roughly one third of the 156 positions on the board are now unfilled and the backlog of cases is growing larger every day. 

For Ms. Desloges, the bottom line is the claimants, particularly the man who was deported even though he said he would be tortured. When she first saw the pictures of his wounds, she says, she cried. 

"I keep those two pictures on my desk just to remind me every day what a responsibility I have to my clients -- when it goes wrong, how wrong it really goes." 

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