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Political smokescreen?

The Canadian government appears all warm and fuzzy about refugee claimants from Russia. But how many are they actually letting in. Two?

With the Winter Olympics beginning in two months in Sochi, Russia’s draconian anti-LGBT laws and the country’s increasing number of attacks on gays and lesbians have come under heavy scrutiny. And while, perhaps inevitably, the calls for boycotts or sanctions have faded in the run-up to the world’s greatest athletic event, the call for governments to open their doors to LGBT refugees from Russia has continued.

But while the Canadian government has said all the right things, refugee advocates question whether there’s any willingness to actually make it easier for LGBT Russians to escape to Canada.

In August, Chris Alexander, Canada’s minister of citizenship and immigration, took the unprecedented step of publicly stating that refugee claims “related to this particular issue will of course be looked at very seriously by our very generous system.”

Alexander added, “As the Prime Minister said, as our foreign minister John Baird has said, Russia has gone down the wrong path in restricting fundamental rights of a significant group in society. We object. We have particular concern because Russia is hosting the world at Sochi, and we will continue speaking out until they correct this mistake. And we’re being joined by more and more other countries in doing so. This is not a negotiable issue. It reflects our values, it reflects international human rights practice. There have been huge gains for lesbian, gay, trans communities in the world in seeing their rights protected, in ending persecution in many parts of the world.

Russia’s reversed direction. And that is sad to see. We hope that they will come to their senses.”

Alexander’s public statement has been taken as a sign of genuine support for gay and lesbian rights in Russia, but the government has made it clear that refugee claimants must still be in Canada to file a claim or be a refugee recognized by the United Nations. Canadian embassies in Russia will not help any claimants. And any claim must still be approved by the independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

“In order for an individual to make a claim for asylum, they must be in Canada,” writes ministry spokesperson Sonia Lesage in an email. “To apply for resettlement from outside Canada, a refugee must be identified and referred either by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or by a group of Canadians and/or permanent residents who wish to sponsor that individual to Canada.

“The government of Canada has informed the UNHCR that we will accept LGBT refugees for resettlement. To note, LGBT Russians in Russia would not be eligible for resettlement to Canada, as an individual must have left his/her country to be considered a refugee.”

In other words, says Toronto immigration lawyer El-Farouk Khaki, any gay or lesbian refugees must have found a way to escape from Russia to Canada or to a United Nations-recognized refugee camp before they can even file a claim. “I think it’s actually political manoeuvring and smoke and mirrors,” says Khaki. “It’s a nice warm fuzzy, but I’m not sure it has any real impact. The real problem is that people are not able to get here. And the refugee system is predicated on the fact that the individual has to be in Canada to file a claim.”

In order to get to Canada, anybody who wishes to file a refugee claim here has to obtain a visa to visit Canada. And, says Khaki, the Canadian government has recently made such visas harder to obtain, precisely because they don’t want to be flooded with refugees.

So far, there are only two cases of LGBT refugees from Russia filing claims in Canada, both in Vancouver. One is a gay deaf activist who was arrested after participating in a May Pride march, the other a man who has been gaybashed several times.

Immigration lawyer Rob Hughes, who is representing both claimants, says he doesn’t think the two cases are the first of many. “These two both had personal experiences that made them fear persecution. But I don’t think we’re going to see the floodgates open. For a lot of people, it’s going to be impossible for them to get a visa. They [the Canadian government] are definitely trying to weed out people who are going to make a refugee claim.”

Michael Battista, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, says the Canadian embassy in Moscow is not known for being sympathetic to those seeking visas. “The problem with Russian LGBT refugees, as with refugees from other countries, is accessing Canadian government protection. The visa office in Moscow is a notoriously strict office. It’s extremely difficult to obtain a visa.”

Battista says such difficulties, and not just with Canadian visas, will make it difficult for Russian refugees to even access the UNHCR, as they can’t claim refugee status when they’re still in Russia.

But Hughes says that he thinks his clients, having made it to Canada, stand a good chance of being accepted by the IRB as refugees. And he says Alexander’s comments can only help their chances.

“I think that individual claimants will be able to use the situation in Russia. And Alexander is perhaps giving a signal to the IRB that the Canadian government recognizes that there are serious human rights abuses. I think it will have a positive effect. But I tell all my clients, even if I think we have a strong case, I can never guarantee your acceptance.

“The IRB has been sympathetic to sexual orientation or gender-based discrimination. But the first thing you have to do is convince them that the refugee is of the sexual orientation they say they are. People who have very carefully and deliberately hidden their identity are now expected to prove it. Even from countries where there is a record of human rights abuses, they have to show they have a genuine fear.”

Both Hughes and Khaki agree that it’s getting tougher, not easier, for potential refugee claimants to make their way to Canada. “This year, it’s projected there will be less than 10,000 refugee claims made this year, as opposed to 20,000 last year,” says Khaki. “Part of that is new visa requirements. Now you need to submit biometrics with your application, which means you need to travel to where the visa is issued to get your biometrics done. A lot of LGBT people may not have the community or familial support to make that trip.”

And, of course, Canadian embassies or consulates can refuse to issue visas, and may very well do so if they think it’ll lead to a refugee claim. This means, says Khaki, that coming out during the visa application process may be counter-productive. “Even if you’re in a relationship, you’re not going to be open about it. People lie about having a relationship to get a visa, then that’s held against them in a refugee hearing.”

Khaki also points to the establishment in 2012 of a list of countries designated as protecting human rights effectively enough to have the refugee claim process streamlined. Refugees from those countries—which include countries as notoriously unfriendly to gays and lesbians as Mexico and a number of Eastern European nations— have no right to appeal decisions that go against them.

And Hughes says Canada’s safe third country process will make it even more difficult for Russian refugees. The process means that if any refugee passes through a country which is considered safe en route to Canada, even if it’s a country where they feared for their safety, they have no right to file a refugee claim in Canada.

But Battista wants to think that comments like Alexander’s may be the start of positive steps. “Regardless of motivation, it’s good to see, good for our community here, good for LGBT rights internationally. It provides some leverage for us to say, ‘What about those who are trapped by visa requirements?’”

Khaki, however, is less optimistic about the fate of those unable to access Canadian visas. He says the Canadian government has worked to make it easier for gay Iranian refugees who have made it to Turkey to enter Canada as refugees. But that help has not been extended to other countries.

“It’s nice that you give with your right hand to 20 or 100 or 1,000 people, but with your left, you’re blocking 10-15,000 refugees.

“There’s shrinking access for everybody, which automatically means shrinking access for gays and lesbians. There’s a disproportionate effect on those who are particularly marginalized. This is the political smokescreen. We’ll steal the bread, but we’ll give you the crumbs.”