Stateless refugees sit in limbo

August 17th, 2007 | Posted in Corporate Media, Lebanon, Palestine

    Toronto Star: August 7th, 2007, by Nicholas Keung


    Photo: Stefan Christoff, Burj el-Shemali Refugee Camp, South Lebanon.

Born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Youssef Kanaan has been “an unwelcome guest” all his life – surviving, with no permanent home, at the mercy of others.

Like many of the 4 million Palestinians who lost their ancestral homes in Arab-Israel conflicts in 1948 and 1967, Kanaan is stateless, a peculiar situation that deprives him of basic rights in the land of his birth, Lebanon, and dooms him to a strange limbo in Canada.

A nurse by training, the 40-year-old Kanaan fled Muslim extremists at the now-infamous Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in 1993. After 14 years in Toronto, he is still fighting to find a home and end the vicious cycle of statelessness for his children, Taha, 15, and Omaya, 13.

Omaya wasn’t even born when his father left. Kanaan hasn’t been permitted to see his wife, children or mother since. Adding to his anxiety, the family home was bombed out in recent crossfire between the Lebanese army and militants in the camp, leaving his family homeless.

Kanaan’s plight and that of many other Palestinians here starts with the fact they are not considered refugees under the UN Convention.

If they fail to prove their lives are at risk and are ordered deported, they are often refused travel documents from their last country of residence because they aren’t considered citizens.

They end up unable to leave and, lacking the rights of landed immigrants, are denied a chance to have their loved ones join them here.

Due to poor advice from an immigration consultant, Kanaan exaggerated his involvement with the terrorist group Abu Nidal Organization, in his refugee claim, which was denied in October 1994. It took another three years for refugee board officials to decide that his life would not be at risk if he returned to the Lebanese camp.

Meanwhile, even though Immigration Canada approved in principle in 2001 his two-year-old application to stay in Canada on compassionate grounds, he had to ask the office of Public Safety Minister, Stockwell Day for a reprieve on his Abu Nidal claim to get landed immigrant status. His call remained unanswered.

Through the years, Kanaan has completed an automotive certification program at Georgian College and worked at different jobs, including his own mobile car wash and most recently as a business partner of a car dealership. However, a 2005 car accident that broke his legs has aggravated his post-traumatic stress disorder forcing him on social assistance ever since.

“You feel hopeless when you don’t belong to nowhere and you have no rights as a human being in the society,” says Kanaan.

Refugee advocates have asked Ottawa to consider allowing statelessness as grounds for refugee and humanitarian applications. But given Middle East politics and the millions of potential applicants, it’s a hot potato the government has little inclination to pick up.

According to the Immigration and Refugee Board, Palestinian refugee claims have dropped significantly, from 156 cases in 2001 to 57 last year, when the approval rate hovered at 55 per cent. To date in 2007, 36 new claims have been filed but just two granted.

The statistics don’t reflect the real numbers of Palestinian asylum seekers or the extent of lives in limbo in Canada because most claimants declare their country of last residence as their origin, rather than “Palestine,” which legally doesn’t exist.

“Palestinians are by far the largest group of stateless people in the world. They are not on the government’s radar screen,” says Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. “You see the cycle of statelessness pass on from generation to generation. When you’re born stateless, you belong to nowhere and you’re not welcomed anywhere.”

Charles Hawkins, a spokesperson for the refugee board, said the agency has no “blanket policy or guidelines” on Palestinian claims.

“Claims of stateless persons are normally assessed against the last country of habitual residence,” he says. “Statelessness in and of itself is not a ground for a refugee claim.”

Montreal immigration lawyer Jared Will says that’s an insufficient response, because most stateless Palestinians have no basic citizenship rights in their host countries in the Middle East, limiting their ability to travel and their access to jobs, health care, education and housing. Denying the rights of citizenship is itself a form of persecution, he argues.

“One problem with the Palestinians is the difficulty in establishing their identity and nationality because they don’t exist in papers anywhere,” says Will, of the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees.

Fouad Sakr’s parents left their Palestinian village near Nazareth for Lebanon in 1948, when he was 2. After finishing a UN nursing diploma program in 1968, Sakr lived in Kuwait for 22 years on a work permit. In 1991, the Iraqi invasion forced him to return with his family to the Lebanese camp where he grew up.

“I used up all my savings because I couldn’t get a job. The government doesn’t allow you to have any decent professional jobs,” says Sakr, 62, who arrived in Montreal in 2001.

In their respective refugee claims, Sakr and his younger brother said they were being coerced by the Palestine Liberation Organization to take up their deceased father’s leadership role in the group. The irony is that Sakr’s claim was rejected, while his sibling’s was approved.

The chance of a humanitarian application succeeding is slim. Last year, only 21 of the 158 Palestinians who became permanent residents were accepted on humanitarian grounds. The average processing time was more than 20 months.

The immigration department refused to comment on specific cases, but said processing could be delayed by reasons such as medical and security clearances.

Jane Pritchard and members of her congregation, Toronto United Mennonite Church, have been supporting fellow member Kanaan since 1995. She says he has hit a “stone wall” with officials, who also refused the congregation’s attempt to sponsor his family.

“This is inhuman and unconscionable,” says Pritchard, a family doctor. “Peace building is in part about rebuilding a stable ground for the next generation to grow up. Canada should allow Youssef to stay and let him be joined by his family to ease this misery.”

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