No Status, No Future

Winnipeg family waits for permission to stay together

WINNIPEG (CUP) — Ammar Khatib recently received a deportation order at his Winnipeg home, indicating the Canadian government’s intent to force him to leave the country by Nov. 15. The order came despite repeated claims from Khatib and his supporters, which include Amnesty International, that incommunicado imprisonment, torture, and even death could await him in his native Syria, which is where he would end up if the Canadian government had its way.

Khatib is a Syrian-born man who came to Canada several years ago seeking asylum as a political refugee. He had been in Saudi Arabia as a non-recognized refugee for many years, following his family’s escape from Syria in 1980, when Khatib was just four years old. The family was forced to leave Syria because of Khatib’s father’s involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the target of much state repression owing to the group’s public opposition to the dictatorial Syrian government.

Twice, Khatib has applied for protection from the Canadian government as a refugee. Khatib’s refugee claim rested first and foremost on his familial association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is so despised by the Syrian government the constitution holds its members are to be punished by death. However, Canadian government officers who handled Khatib’s numerous applications for protection determined he, never having himself been a member of the Brotherhood, but rather being only the son of a member, would not be “at risk” if sent back to Syria.

Amnesty International presented considerable supporting documentation on Khatib’s behalf as part of his refugee claim. It included, for example, one report of a woman who was detained, threatened, insulted and physically abused at the hands of Syrian authorities, because her husband and three sons were thought to be members of the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, according to the officers who handled Khatib’s applications, such evidence did not demonstrate sufficient “risk” to merit protection.

Most recently Khatib paid the government’s $500 fee for a “humanitarian and compassionate,” or H&C, application to stay in Canada. Under the H&C, a wider range of factors is considered as compared to the refugee claim and the pre-removal risk assessment, the first two channels through which Khatib applied for status. As such, Khatib was able to have not only the risks posed to him in the event of deportation to Syria considered, but also the fact his deportation would separate him from his Canadian wife and daughter. Khatib is married to Safiya Thiessen; their baby, Amal (“hope”), was born in June of this year. However, the H&C application was also rejected.

“There are not really any clear reasons for the rejection of my humanitarian and compassionate file. The reason they always give is that there is no risk for me to return to Syria. However, Amnesty International says otherwise,” says Khatib. “Canada is the safest country for me. There is no other safe country to go to, and my wife is Canadian and so is my baby daughter. Why do they want to take me away from my baby and my wife?”

Khatib is not considered a security threat by the Canadian government, yet he is told he must leave the country. According to his lawyer, Ken Zaifman, this is despite the fact he would in all likelihood be admitted to Canada if he were to apply from outside the country to immigrate, given that his wife would readily sponsor him. Yet, if he is deported to Syria, he may not have the opportunity to leave again. Nor has he the option of going to a country other than Syria where he might wait in relative safety for permission to re-enter Canada as an immigrant. This is because no other country will allow him entry since he has no legal passport, having been without status ever since he fled Syria with his endangered family as a young child.

Khatib has a lot of support in the Winnipeg Muslim community, in which he has been very much involved, not least through his volunteer work at the Islamic Institute. Aezeden Muhamed, a University of Manitoba graduate student and president of the school’s Muslim Students’ Association, expressed grave concern about his friend’s situation. “It is morally wrong, whatever the circumstances, for the Canadian government to continue their attempts at deporting Ammar knowing . . . what he may face. He deserves the chance and the right to remain in this country, live his life in peace with his family, and pursue his goals where he is safe from these threats. Knowing him as a person and knowing his character, he is definitely a big asset to this country, and it is utterly wrong what he has been put through and is still going through.”

Khatib’s story has reached many members of the broader community as well, helping to boost the numbers of outspoken voices condemning the government for its actions against him. Indeed, public protest of Khatib’s deportation order has forced Citizenship and Immigration Minister Judy Sgro to intervene in the case insofar as she has agreed to postpone the deportation at least until government officials have had a chance to review Khatib’s H&C application. This does not guarantee Khatib will be allowed to stay. At a recent public rally in support of Khatib, Krishna Lalbiharie, a member of the Winnipeg refugee advocacy group No One Is Illegal, urged supporters to remain vigilant. He claimed the government has, in the past, postponed deportations at the last minute in order to “quash or mollify public support.”

The policies administered under Sgro as head of Citizenship and Immigration Canada have changed in recent years. One of the key pieces of legislation that has been instituted in Canada since the dawn of the official “War on Terror” is the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. IRPA was adopted by Parliament in June 2002, replacing the Immigration Act, which for the previous quarter-century had been the major legislation on immigrant and refugee policy in Canada.

Janis Nickel, refugee claimants’ advocate at Welcome Place in Winnipeg, says, post-IRPA, it is harder for many refugee claimants to obtain status.

“When IRPA was passed by Parliament it contained provisions for an appeal which would involve someone actually looking at the (whole) case . . . and reconsidering it. Had this happened in Khatib’s case there is a very good chance he would have been recognized as a Convention refugee,” says Nickel.

However, the IRPA has been in place for over two years, and the appeal provisions have still not been implemented. The result, Nickel says, is “the only appeal-type process failed claimants have access to, is the pre-removal risk assessment. This application allows only new evidence to be presented. Therefore anything that was, or even could have been, presented to the refugee board, cannot and will not be considered under the PRRA.”

While the appeal provisions of IRPA have yet to be put into practice, another aspect of the act that has been implemented by the government concerns the H&C application. This has also been to refugee claimants’ disadvantage, Nickel explains. “Pre-IRPA this application was routinely used and approved for individuals married to Canadian citizens, regardless of the foreign spouse’s status. IRPA brought a new in-Canada spousal application that excludes all those in Canada without status–all refugee claimants, since to make a refugee claim is to lose status. ”

According to Nickel, H&C applications are now “routinely” being refused by Citizenship and Immigration. “In my opinion,” Nickel says, “this is meant to act as a deterrent, if not a punishment, to failed refugee claimants. The message is clear: if you are not recognized as a refugee you will not be granted any humanitarian or compassionate considerations.

“In Khatib’s case, the buck stops with CIC,” adds Nickel. “They could have, completely within the letter of the law of IRPA, allowed Khatib to remain in Canada. Unfortunately, the department is lacking in both humanitarian considerations and in compassion.”

Whether the government will finally allow Khatib to stay remains in question until his H&C application is reviewed. In the meantime, Khatib and his wife wait, hope, and pray the government, this time, will give them and their baby permission to continue their life together.

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