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Pakistanis Fleeing U.S. Face Tough Test In Canada

by Mark Bourrie

Pakistani Families Flee U.S. To Seek Canada Asylum
(IPS) OTTAWA -- Many Pakistanis fleeing a U.S. immigration crackdown have crossed the northern border into Canada but activists here say Pakistan's new role as a partner in the 'War on Terrorism' is making it easier for Ottawa to reject those refugee applicants.

"Before Sept. 11, Pakistan was under sanctions for human rights abuses. Now, the west is signing trade deals with the Pakistani government and is turning a blind eye to abuses," according to Ali Hasanie, head of the Action Group Against the Racial Profiling of Pakistanis, a Montreal-based association.

Hasanie says Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has rejected about 80 percent of Pakistanis who claim refugee status because they are Shia Muslims, a persecuted minority in their home country, they argue.

Ottawa, he adds, has accepted Pakistan's promise that the claimants' lives will not be in danger if they return to their native country.

"That is not true; law and order is not there," Hasanie said in an interview. "Deporting people puts lives in danger."

About 400 Pakistani refugees are seeking landed immigrant status in Montreal, with about 500 more in Toronto, according to refugee support groups.

In Montreal, the case of one woman and her son has galvanized anti-racism and pro-refugee groups. Refugee claimant Bilquees Fatima, 63, can barely walk, suffers from a heart condition and needs dialysis treatment for kidney failure three times a week.

For months, she and her 17-year-old son, Imran Hussain, have been fighting deportation to their native Pakistan from a suburban Montreal detention centre because, according to immigration officials, they represent a flight risk.

Their case is just the latest example of systemic discrimination in Canada's refugee system, says one activist.

"People are criminalized for the fact they have asked for political asylum," Harsha Walia of No One Is Illegal, a refugee rights advocacy group, told a rally in support of Fatima and Hussain in downtown Montreal earlier this month.

Walia also accused Canadian authorities of trying to wash their hands of the issue by shipping Fatima and Hussain to the United States, through which they passed on their way to Canada.

One newspaper reported that 5,000 Pakistanis have fled the United States for Canada since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent government round up of males from Muslim countries and other South Asian and Middle Eastern nations.

Nearly 200 Pakistanis are still being questioned in U.S. detention centers and more than 1,000 have been deported, according to the Pakistan News Service.

Citizenship and Immigration Spokesman Robert Gervais said he could not discuss the case of Fatima and her son unless the woman signed a form consenting to the release of personal information. He would not comment on the claim that 80 per cent of Pakistani refugee claimants are being turned down for landed status.

But according to a senior department official, who asked to be unnamed, the Pakistani refugees " believe they have a better chance here but they have to prove they're personally in danger if they return to Pakistan. Simply being a Pakistani Shiite is not enough."

"They have to prove that they, themselves, will be a victim of oppression or violence, and, if they can't, they have to return to the country they came from, whether it's Pakistan or the U.S."

The Shia Muslim claimants say they are victims of systemic discrimination by the Sunni-dominated Pakistani government and targets of organized sectarian violence by the majority Sunni population.

The July 4 attack on a Shia mosque in Quetta, Pakistan, which killed 50 people, is the latest example of what Shia Muslims face in Pakistan and shows that Pakistani authorities are unable to protect minorities from extremist groups, which have spread through Pakistan, Hasanie said.

Shahim Ahtar, who also faces deportation to Pakistan, told a 'Montreal Gazette' reporter she would rather kill herself and her daughters than return to Pakistan to face certain torture, rape and death if the family refuses to convert to the Sunni creed.

Hussain, the 17-year-old in detention with his mother, told reporters at his latest immigration hearing he fears that if they are deported to Pakistan, he and his mother will be killed by extremists as soon as they land at the airport.

Canada's refugee board system has flaws that make it difficult to predict whether refugee claimants will be able to stay in Canada, says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

"Each tribunal member is independent," she said in an interview. "One argument that will convince a tribunal member may not succeed with another one. The system is filled with inconsistencies, and people are caught up in them," she said.

Rev. Darryl Gray of Montreal's Union United Church, who represents an interfaith coalition that supports refugee claimants, told IPS it is "unconscionable this government would allow Fatima to remain in detention."

One of the group's churches would care for Fatima and Hussain if they were released from detention, he added.

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Albion Monitor December 20, 2003 (

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