Eritrean refugees wrongly rejected: judge

CBC News

Posted: May 7, 2011

Three dozen refugees whose claims were rejected by a Canadian official in Egypt could see their cases reconsidered after a Federal Court judge ruled the visa officer made grave errors.

The refugees, from the East African country of Eritrea, face religious, gender and political persecution at home, their supporters say. They fled to Egypt, where they filed claims at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo.

But at least 40 of those applications have been turned down in the last few years, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees — and all by the same visa officer.

On Thursday, a Federal Court judge examining four of those cases ruled that the officer’s decision was unreasonable and failed to consider key evidence.

For instance, when two of the applicants said they were persecuted because of their Pentecostal faith, the officer grilled them about the “seven gifts of the Holy Spirit” and found their responses lacking. The Federal Court judge said this test was inappropriate and not based on any knowledge of how Pentecostalism is actually practised in Eritrea.

The officer also asked two claimants about the ratio of guards to prisoners in jails they had escaped from, and decided their answers were implausible. The judge ruled that the officer’s finding was based on “pure speculation and conjecture.”

The four Eritreans will get new hearings before a different visa officer. The Canadian Council on Refugees said that it hopes a quick settlement can now be reached in the cases of the remaining three dozen refugees rejected by the same officer.

“The refugees in these cases have really been vindicated,” said their lawyer, Andrew Brouwer. “The ruling has very significant implications for all the others who’ve been refused by this officer.”

Threats in Egypt

Meanwhile, many of the applicants face hardship as they await their fate in Cairo, said Janet Dench, the refugee council’s executive director.

“A lot of racism, sexual violence against women, lack of health care and refugees without proper papers. That puts you in an even more vulnerable position,” she said.

Egyptian officials are threatening to send the Eritreans back home, where they could meet with torture and imprisonment. Dench said given that, she wants the Canadian government to make sure the new hearings are held as soon as possible.

Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993, has been under single-party rule since then and has one of the world’s worst records for media and religious freedoms.

The U.S. government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom listed Eritrea as one of its “countries of particular concern” in a report issued last week, alongside Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, North Korea, Nigeria, Uzbekistan and several other states.

Separately, the international aid organization Save the Children ranked Eritrea 158th out of 164 countries in its annual classification of the best places in the world to be a mother. Norway took top spot and Afghanistan was in last place.

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