Since the 1970s, Canada’s Hispanic community has grown from a tiny group of pioneering Spanish and Latin American immigrants to a vibrant, multifarious community of well over half a million. A key factor in the development of this community, which today has become such a vital element of Canada’s multicultural mosaic, has been Canada’s positive approach to immigration, and in particular, its historically compassionate refugee policy. Indeed, a significant proportion of the first major waves of Hispanic immigrants to Canada were refugee claimants from the military dictatorships of Chile, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970s, and from war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s, who played an important role in building and consolidating an infrastructure for Hispanic arts and culture in this country, and whose positive contribution to their adopted home has added a very welcome dimension to Canada’s cultural fabric.
Unfortunately, Canada’s compassionate refugee policy appears to have taken a disturbing lurch towards indifference in recent years. Mexicans suffered the brunt of this change in direction with Ottawa’s sudden imposition of visas on Mexican nationals in 2008, in a knee-jerk response to the large number of refugee claimants arriving in Canada from Mexico. The decision has cost the Canadian tourist industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue due to the dramatic drop in numbers of Mexican tourists as a result of the visa imposition, as according to figures published by Statistics Canada, revenue from Mexican tourist spending in Canada dropped from CA$364 million in 2008 to CA$231 million in 2009, and to only CA$157 million in 2010. It has also cost Canada severely in terms of Mexican business investment, due to the severe damage it has done to Canada-Mexico relations. Meanwhile, recent revisions to Canada’s refugee claimant process have merely made the process more restrictive, while failing to address the real problems with the system.
An emblematic example of the flaws in Canada’s current refugee application system can be found in the case of the Pusumas, a Roma family who fled Hungary after Jozsef Pusuma’s work as a human rights activist for the country’s Roma minority provoked death threats and an assault against him by racist extremists. The Pusumas’ very solid claim for refugee status was denied in 2011 because of the incompetence of their lawyer, Viktor Hohots, who submitted a poorly prepared application that failed to include documentation that was key to their refugee claim… and didn’t even show up at their hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board.
The Pusuma case highlights some serious problems with the current refugee claim process. The first of these is its failure to make any form of concession for victims of corrupt lawyers like Hohots, who has had complaints from 16 former clients brought against him, was declared incompetent by a federal court and is now being prosecuted by the Law Society of Upper Canada. By any reasonable assessment, the Pusumas’ case should be reopened in view of the fact that the lawyer originally representing them has been found incompetent, yet in response to increasing public pressure, including a petition with more than 44,000 signatures, Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s only response so far has been a formulaic reply that the Pusumas have “exhausted all avenues of recourse available to them,” and are therefore “expected to respect our laws and depart as directed” (personal correspondence received from Bogdan Sultana, CIC). Regrettably, refugee claimants are especially vulnerable to corrupt immigration lawyers who may see them as an opportunity for easy money with little chance of reprisal for malpractice, since dissatisfied clients will be deported before they have a chance to complain. That the system makes no concession for a situation like the Pusumas’ reflects a rigidity that needs to be corrected if we are to fulfill our international obligations with respect to refugees.
Another of the problems highlighted by the Pusuma case is the arbitrary nature of IRB decisions, and particularly the wide divergence in the number of claims accepted from one adjudicator to the next. For example, while the average proportion of refugee claims accepted is around 31%, Pasquale Fiorino, the IRB adjudicator who heard the Pusumas case, accepted only 10 of the 256 claimants brought before him in 2011 – a percentage of less than 4%. Such a disproportionately low acceptance rate raises serious questions about this adjudicator’s ability to give claimants a fair hearing, warranting ministerial investigation and a certain degree of flexibility with respect to the reconsideration of cases he has heard.
Unable to return to Hungary for fear of persecution, and aware that Canada has yet to give their refugee claim a fair hearing, the Pusuma family have sought sanctuary in a Toronto church in the hope that their case will be reopened. Jozsef Pusuma is a key witness in the Law Society’s case against Hohots, and the Canadian government’s inexplicable refusal to respond to requests to grant him a visa so he can testify is obstructing the course of justice in that case, as a hearing scheduled for today has been postponed until March because of Pusuma’s inability to appear in court. Both Jozsef and his wife Timea have been offered work if they are given a visa to stay in Canada. Their 6 year-old daughter, Lulu, has lived more of her life here in Canada than in Hungary, is fluent in English and ready to attend school. The family has a large network of friends and supporters committed to helping them integrate into Canadian society. Under the circumstances, there is really no sane argument for refusing to reopen their case so they can be given a fair hearing.
Many Hispanic immigrants to Canada have had first-hand experience of Canada’s historically compassionate policy towards refugees. Canada’s acceptance of thousands of refugee claimants from Chile following the coup of 1973 reflected the high value placed on human rights in this country, a value which has made many of us who have immigrated here proud to have Canada as our adopted home. To deny the Pusuma family their right to a fair hearing would be a flagrant contradiction of that value, and a disturbing precedent for the future direction of Canada’s refugee policy.
For more information on the Pusuma case, please visit the Free Lulu website.