Palestinian asylum-seekers rush toward Canada’s open arms
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Most of the requests stem from fear of Hamas, honor killings and, to a lesser extent, the Israeli army

Palestinian asylum-seekers rush toward Canada’s open arms

2016 saw a marked increase in West Bank and Gaza residents who, claiming religious discrimination and political persecution, applied for Canadian refugee status

Illustrative photo of Palestinian woman who sits next to her luggage as she waits to cross to the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, October 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)
Illustrative photo of Palestinian woman who sits next to her luggage as she waits to cross to the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, October 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

MONTREAL — In the spring of 2015, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in Toronto granted asylum to a 60-year-old widow from the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian woman stated before the judge that she was afraid to return to Gaza because her family, which had supported Fatah, was being harassed by the rival Hamas movement.

“The appellant’s extended family has been supportive of Fatah, which resulted in a number of her family members being killed in the hostilities over the years,” say court documents that can be accessed online through CanLII, a nonprofit that posts some court documents online. “The appellant’s sons were forced to leave Gaza in order to earn a living because Hamas had blacklisted the family.”

The name of the woman — who is described as having had her home in Gaza destroyed by bombing — is replaced with an “X” in the documents because refugee claims are private under Canadian law.

She is not alone. According to data from the Canadian government, more people from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are asking to be admitted as refugees to Canada — and most of them get accepted.

A Palestinian family sit next to their luggage as they wait for their turn to enter the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2016. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian family sit next to their luggage as they wait for their turn to enter the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2016. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

The number of refugee claims from the West Bank and Gaza has more than quadrupled from 50 in 2010, to 242 during the first nine months of 2016, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, the court that determines if a person is eligible to be admitted as a refugee. In 2016, almost 80% of these refugee claims were accepted.

These statistics are for people who claim persecution in the West Bank or Gaza, and do not include ethnic Palestinians who reside in other countries, said Melissa Anderson, the spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The Canada Border Services Agency, meanwhile, reported that the number of refugee claims made by people from Palestinian territories at Canadian land border crossings more than doubled from 85 in 2015, to 192 in 2016.

Most of the refugee claims from Gaza are related to problems with Hamas, said attorney Michael Loebach who represented the 60-year-old widow at the tribunal.

“Hamas is mistreating anybody who is perceived as an opponent with jail time and beatings, and there doesn’t seem to be any recourse,” Loebach said.

Hamas frees Fatah prisoners from a Gaza jail as a goodwill gesture, January 2014 (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Hamas frees Fatah prisoners from a Gaza jail as a goodwill gesture, January 2014 (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

The refugee claims from the West Bank, on the other hand, usually involve problems with Israel, Loebach added. He said that he sees fewer cases from the West Bank than from Gaza.

The situation in the West Bank and Gaza is particularly difficult for young men when hostilities rise between political factions or between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian communities, said refugee lawyer Peter Edelmann, who worked on several such cases.

‘If you are perceived to be a member of Hamas, but Hamas perceives you to be a traitor, you get squeezed from both sides’

“The IDF may perceive them as being a member of a particular political organization, but on the other hand the political groups themselves may see them as traitors. If you are perceived to be a member of Hamas, but Hamas perceives you to be a traitor, you get squeezed from both sides,” Edelmann said.

Other refugee claims from the Palestinian Authority are related to the fear of honor killings, he said.

For example, in March of 2014, a rape victim from the West Bank and her son were granted asylum in Canada because the woman feared that her husband’s family would try to kill her “to restore honor to the family.” The rape had been filmed, according to court documents.

Palestinian Christians cry during a rally against the forced conversions of two individuals on Monday (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinian Christians cry during a rally against the forced conversions of two individuals. (AP/Adel Hana)

Christians from the West Bank also often request asylum in Canada, particularly when Israeli settlements encroach upon Palestinian communities.

“There is not an expectation that someone will flee to a place with no churches,” said Edelmann.

But just being a Christian does not guarantee acceptance in Canada.

For example, in 2015 a Christian from the West Bank who had been living as a refugee in Canada for three years was ordered deported because it was discovered that as a student, he had been a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). The DFLP is most known for its 1974 hostage-taking of 115 people in an Israeli schoolhouse, resulting in the deaths of 27.

“The appellant submitted that he could not and would not commit violent acts because he is an Orthodox Christian,” Canadian judge George Pemberton wrote in his decision, “but the founder of the DFLP, Nayef Hawatmeh, is also an Orthodox Christian. I give little weight to the respondent’s claim that his religious beliefs show that he could not have been a member of a terrorist organization.”

A Palestinian dressed as Santa Claus takes a picture on Christmas Eve in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian dressed as Santa Claus takes a picture on Christmas Eve in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Saturday, December 24, 2016 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Also in 2015, Canada issued the deportation order for a gay man named John Calvin, who had converted from Islam to Christianity, because his grandfather was one of the founders of Hamas and his uncles had connections to terrorist attacks in Israel. The 24-year-old left Canada and is now living in New York because he fears that he would be murdered if he returns to the West Bank.

The number of people deported back to the West Bank and Gaza from Canada has remained steady at about 20 per year, according to data from the Canada Border Services Agency.

John Calvin, a gay, Christian Palestinian asylum seeker, who has been permitted to remain in the US. (screen capture: CNN)
John Calvin, a gay, Christian Palestinian asylum seeker, who has been permitted to remain in the US. (screen capture: CNN)

While the number of refugee claims made in Canada by Palestinians increased sharply in recent years, the number of claims from the State of Israel declined.

According to the Canadian government, only 23 Israelis asked for asylum in Canada during the first six months of 2016, compared with 524 Israelis who requested to be admitted as refugees in Canada in all 12 months of 2006. The number of refugee claims made by people with Israeli passports has been declining steadily in the course of the decade — falling to 400 claims in 2007; 345 in 2008; 211 in 2010; 174 in 2011 and only 35 refugee claims in 2015.

The reason for the decline is that most of the Russian Jews who had wanted to move from Israel back to a colder climate have already done so, said Marshall Garnick, a refugee lawyer in Toronto.

“They didn’t want to live in a hot climate anymore. A lot of them said life in Israel is hard, the military service and the terrorists — so they said they’ll come to Canada. They said they’re just visiting, and they’d ask for asylum,” Garnick said.

Of course Russian Jews are not the only Israelis who request asylum in Canada.

Arab Israel Mahmoud Mansour in Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court petitioning against a protest against his wedding to a Jewish woman, on August 17, 2014. (photo credit: FLASH90)
Arab Israel Mahmoud Mansour in Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court petitioning against a protest against his wedding to a Jewish woman, on August 17, 2014. (photo credit: FLASH90)

For example, in one recent case from April of 2016, asylum in Canada was denied to an intermarried Israeli couple — an Arab Muslim woman and a man of Jewish ethnicity who immigrated to Israel from Belarus and converted to Islam — and their two children. The woman claimed that she received death threats from her uncle and faced pressure from her family to divorce her husband and marry her cousin instead. The Canadian court rejected the refugee claim because the judge felt that the applicants could receive adequate state protection in Israel.

Refugee claims made by Israelis have a smaller chance of being accepted in Canada.

Only 12% of those Israelis who requested asylum in Canada during the first part of 2016 received it, compared with 78% of claims made by people from the West Bank and Gaza, according to the Canadian government‘s data.

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