"Some judges reject 95 percent of the claims that come before them, while others accept almost everyone they see," said Rabie Masri, member of the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees. "The refugees joke about it being a ’scratch-and-win’ situation," Masri said.
These and other discrepancies in the results of Palestinian refugee cases drove the refugees and their supporters to establish the Coalition, as a formal way to question the processes of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) and demand changes.
The process of claiming refugee status is a long one. Refugees can wait as long as 18 months before their hearing, enough time to get settled into a new life. If the claim is not successful, the refugee can appeal, a process that may take up to nine more months.
If the appeal fails, the deportation process kicks into its slow motion. Refugees faced with deportation may wait up to nine months before they are forced to leave. During the wait refugees can attempt a last-gasp measure called the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment. This offers a reprieve to those who can present new evidence indicating a return to their homeland may threaten their well-being.
The IRB is supposed to evaluate claims based on their validity within the terms of the 1951 Geneva Conventions, but the coalition accuses some IRB members of misinterpreting or overlooking the Conventions entirely.
"The Geneva conventions say that anyone persecuted for their religion, ethnic group or political ideology can claim refugee status," Masri explained. "The problem is that the interpretation of ’persecution’ is left up to the members of the IRB."
In one specific example, Masri said that the cases of two brothers went before different IRB members. Though the two young men came from the same refugee camp, the same conditions, the same home, one had his claim rejected, the other had his accepted.
The IRB’s own web site explains that "The setting and procedures for hearings are relatively informal and therefore, evidence presented and accepted is not restricted by technical or legal rules of evidence." This reflects the Coalition’s assertion that the process lacks uniformity.
"They don’t question them on the reality of the persecution in the camps of Lebanon and Palestine," Masri said. "Instead the hearings are a attack on the claimant’s credibility."
"They ask you very specific questions," said one refugee who requested anonymity. An engineering graduate from the camps in Lebanon, where the law prohibits him from working, his initial claim was rejected and he now awaits a decision on his appeal. "It’s like an interrogation. If you make one mistake under all this pressure, they take it as an excuse to say you are not credible."
The questions can border on the obscure and the irrelevant, the refugee said. He said one judge asked a refugee to name the colour of a line that appears on an immigration form. Another colleague, he claims, was asked his opinion on the Oslo Accords.
Masri agrees that the burden of proof is on the person claiming refugee status, but questions to the tactlessness of some IRB members. "In their statements, some members of the IRB are extremely insensitive. So, to an observer, the impression is that the refugees are being judged by people who are insensitive to their situation."
Masri said the Coalition has been contacting various levels of government to get their point across: "This is an injustice, and these people should be taken seriously." The Coalition has also networked with grassroots and community organizations to spread their message, and have had no fewer than 45 groups endorse their campaign.
The Coalition is demanding that all deportations of Palestinian refugees stop and that their claims be accepted. As for those who are already playing against time in the appeals and deportation processes, their future is less clear than ever.
"It is not easy," said the anonymous refugee. "When you spend your whole life on the run, looking for a home, it doesn’t makes sense to go back. We are very lucky to have made it this far, because there are thousands who want to escape."
Andrew Elkin, Alternative Media Intern