An Interview with the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees
Z Net, June 24 2004
By Justin Podur
For over a year, the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees has been working in Montreal to stop deportations against these members of an already stateless and oppressed community. The coalition's political campaign and case work has afforded some of the only protection and publicity for those few Palestinians who have managed to escape from the refugee camps in Lebanon or the occupied Palestinian territories. The Coalition itself is a part of is part of the Solidarity Across Borders Campaign, which brings to together various self-organized immigrant and refugee communities who are fighting for collectively for their status, against deportations and detentions. Members of the coalition visited Toronto to share their experience with Toronto organizers and community members in June 2004.
Justin Podur (JP): Last year (1), the Coalition had begun its work, identifying over 100 Palestinians facing deportation. It was built up of community members, activists from No One is Illegal who had experience campaigning against the deportation of Montreal Algerians (2), and others, including Palestine solidarity activists. Can you describe the experience of the past year?
Coalition (CADPR): The most searing experience of the year for us was the deportation of Ahmed Abdel Majid in November. He was one of the most active organizers. He was the first one to get a deportation order. He was deported to the United States, which was his point of entry, and is now in the refugee camp in Lebanon where he came from, Ein El Helweh, and trying to leave again.
We learned a lot from that experience, about the lies the immigration authorities are willing to tell to make a deportation happen. We've learned a lot about the system: the dynamics, the politics between the Refugee Board, Immigration Canada, the Ministry of Immigration, the Minister herself, the lawyers, the consultants.
JP: How does immigration policy work?
CADPR: It doesn't work, in fact. Or, it doesn't work for the people who are most vulnerable. There is a battery of lawyers and immigration officials, politicians and their offices, a battery of forms and applications and laws. But when you need a straight answer to a simple question, you can't get one. You get inconsistent answers. We had a very hard time. People with language barriers, cultural barriers, financial barriers, find it nearly impossible to navigate this system.
Immigration authorities also have a fortress mentality. They look for ways to close doors, and they give you bureaucratic answers out of some catalog. They use all this bureaucracy to hide from the human tragedies that their policies bring about.
They are hiding from their own mistakes. The bureaucracy cloaks injustice. Let's get into some specifics. There are different officials working in different aspects of immigration. There are removal officials, enforcement officials, and intelligence officials. Within Immigration Canada there are different people dealing with refugee claims and with enforcement. The Minister herself is unaware of regulations and laws. Can that be accidental, when her ignorance helps serve Canadian foreign policy and economic policy?
JP: How does immigration policy relate to foreign policy in this case?
CADPR: Canada has a free trade agreement with Israel and business interests in Lebanon. It doesn't want to take a strong stand against the treatment of the Palestinians in the refugee camps or in the occupied territories, which is at the root of the problem here. Canada was one of the first regimes to recognize the partition in 1948 when the Palestinian refugee problem began. Canada was part of the 'refugee working group' of the Oslo accords of 1993, a body created to help the Palestinian refugees. There was a Canadian mission to the camps in Lebanon in 1997, and it stated part of the reality on the ground. It asked for funding increases for the UN refugee works organization, UNRWA, and discussed the humanitarian disaster of the camps. But UNRWA is still underfunded and it is the only body that offers anything to the Palestinians: they lack even the protection of the UN High Commission on Refugees.
Many of us are active in the Palestine solidarity movement. One of us was talking on the phone to a Palestinian friend in a camp in Lebanon. We began talking about the right of return and resolving the Palestinian refugee problem, and he asked: "Why are you talking about 4 million refugees when your country won't even accept 100?" The fact is the refugees are a manifestation, on Canada's doorstep, of the occupation, displacement, economic and military warfare waged on the Palestinians, and it is something the Palestine solidarity movement has to deal with.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) travel advisory is a great illustration of the racism inherent in the system. DFAIT specifically warns Canadians against going to both the refugee camps in Lebanon and Occupied Palestine - even telling Canadians to leave the territories immediately, although that may be difficult due to curfews, closures, and incursions. Yet they see no problem sending non-citizens back
JP: Let us go back to the deportation of Ahmed Abdel Majid.
CADPR: He was born in Ein El Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are barred from working in 78 professions, can't own or inherit property, and has no access to public services. He arrived in Canada in March 2001 and claimed refugee status. His claim was refused, so he lived underground without access to basic services. He worked with the coalition and helped other refugees.
On November 4 2003 four Canadian Immigration agents picked him up outside his work, handcuffed him, and took him to detention. He called us. We went to the Immigration offices and got a meeting with Rene D'aoust, the head of removals. We explained why he shouldn't be deported to a life of statelessness and persecution. D'Aoust said - and the one of us who met him will remember this forever - "We know we are not dealing with cargo here, but the life of a human being." He told us we had to get a letter from the Minister of Immigration and that he wouldn't be deported for 48 hours. We had sympathetic Members of Parliament intervene. While we tried to get the letter, Ahmed was told he would have a detention hearing at 1pm on November 6. We went to the detention centre that morning, at 6am. He called us and told us about the hearing.
Then at 8:30am he called us and told us that he was being released. Carloads of us went to the detention centre to greet him, assuming the Minister had intervened. About 30 people, mostly refugees themselves, went. We got there - and the security people called the police. The police told us we had to leave or we'd all be arrested. Just like that. We were confused - we thought we were going to pick Ahmed up. But we left, because we didn't want to be arrested and have more deportations come out of this.
It turns out that while we were waiting outside, they were deporting Ahmed, and they were nervous because they didn't know that we didn't know that the deportation was happening. They had actually scheduled his hearing at 1pm, lied to him, and packed him off to a New York county jail, where the guards were abusive and where we had to go through a great deal of bureaucracy to get him released on a $10,000 bond. They lied to him, they lied to us, repeatedly, so that they could deport him as quickly as possible.
JP: Immigration authorities violated sanctuary in order to violate Non-Status Algerian Mohammad Cherfi. There are Palestinian refugees living in sanctuary now too, correct?
CADPR: There is a Palestinian family of 3 elderly people who have been in sanctuary since January 5, 2004. They are living in a church, again without access to health care services. The previous immigration minister had a policy of not negotiating with churches or claims of people in sanctuary. The current immigration minister has carried that forward. So these people, who have lived through multiple wars and horrors, are now living in a church basement in fear of deportation because the government won't negotiate.
There is another case, of Ashraf, from Jenin. He had a deportation hearing and was released from detention on a $2000 cash and $2500 bond ticket. The judge was unusually sympathetic. Her job was only to assess whether or not he was a flight risk. Instead, she wrote in her judgement that if he is deported, he ought not to be deported through Israel. She recognized that he is from Jenin, and that if he lands in Israel the fact that he is from Jenin alone is enough to land him in prison for a very long time. So she wants him to be deported through Jordan straight into the West Bank. But Ashraf was denied a visa from Jordan. And then his Palestinian Authority passport expired. So now Canada wants to deport him but has nowhere to deport him to. He has to check in every Wednesday with an immigration officer. This has been going on for three months.
These are examples of Immigration Canada's fortress mentality. On the few occasions when we have secured a meeting with the immigration minister's office, we were typically allowed to send a single member, under heavy security escort, after submitting to repeated searches. We would get to the office of some member of the immigration office, surrounded by security, and the person we were meeting would be visibly scared. One time, as one of us was being escorted to the elevator after the meeting, a security guard commented: "Well, that was quite peaceful," as if surprised.
But it is demonstrative of the attitude of immigration officials towards Palestinians. It shows the stereotypes that they believe. Immigration and Refugee Board judges demonstrate these stereotypes in their judgements. IRB member Jeannine Beaubien Duque, for example, has written in her judgements statements like: "the violence of the Middle East is part of Israel's attempts at establishing secure political frontiers and preventing terrorist attacks on its territory," that "it is not the panel's duty to conclude as to the rightfulness or wrongfulness of the military activities of the Israeli authorities in the war stricken area", and that "many young men in their thousands volunteer to take part in martyr operations." These are the people that are deciding the fates of Palestinian refugees.
JP: What have been the coalition's successes over the year?
CADPR: We do a lot of work in our campaigns, contacting organizations, generating letters to the minister and the immigration authorities, holding rallies and demonstrations, we have a weekly picket at the immigration office, we have leaflets and petitions. We make an effort to make sure organizations supporting the coalition aren't just signing on, but giving support, time, resources, mobilizing people for actions.
To go along with this political work, we have a legal strategy where we go case by case and file a Humanitarian and Compassionate claim (H & C) to land the refugees based on the persecution they would face if they returned and their integration into Canada and Quebec society. So we try to create pressure on all levels. It costs $550 to file an H & C, so we have to do fundraising. We save money in one place: we have found that our activists do a better job than lawyers who don't know the situation in Lebanon, don't take the time, don't have the time because they are overworked (partly because there is not enough of them, due to legal aid budget cuts). The H & Cs that are part of a political campaign have a much better chance of success.
By fighting cases as part of a larger campaign, we have had some victories. One major one is, in spite of all of the difficulties of underground living, lack of access to services, fear, being hunted by the CIC, and the deportations and repression, the coalition has managed to maintain itself over this difficult year and continue its work. Another success is that now the authorities know that every single deportation is going to result in a battle. Every time there is a Palestinian who wants to fight deportation, that refugee will have support. There won't be a deportation without media, without publicity, without a battle.
A concrete victory is the staying of the deportation of Osama Saleh, a Palestinian refugee from the West Bank whose claim was denied in 2002, whose 'appeal' was denied in April 2004, but whose deportation was stayed. None of us thought that would happen and we know it is because of the campaign.
1) See the previous interview with the coalition, 'Stop the (re) Deportations' July 5, 2004
2) See the interview with the Action Committee of Non-Status Algerians of December 2002. Among those interviewed was Mohammad Cherfi, who was deported several months ago when police violated a sanctuary of a church in Montreal to arrest him.