The latest deportation order has arrived. After pursuing various legal avenues over the last few years, Syrian-born Ammar Khatib received a letter at the end of October stating that he must present himself at the Winnipeg International Airport on Monday, November 15th at 9:00 A.M. sharp. Unless there is a groundswell of community support, and a reversal of the deportation order, Ammar will be deported back to Syria, a country he has not seen for almost a quarter century, a country where he fears imprisonment, torture, conscription into the army, or worse. Ammar’s family fled Syria in 1981 when he was a small boy, due in part to the political beliefs and activities of his father, who was involved in the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Not long before (in 1980), Syrian law was formally changed to make membership in the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death, which precipitated the flight of Ammar’s family. At age four, a false passport was prepared for Ammar, necessary for his escape from the country, and Ammar’s family fled first to Jordan and then to Saudi Arabia, where they lived for many years as expatriates. But it was a stateless and uncertain existence, a life of exile, and despite living there for twenty years, Ammar was not entitled to become a citizen of Saudi Arabia. He was not entitled to simultaneously work and pursue an education like ordinary Saudi citizens, without fear of deportation back to Syria. As Ammar grew older he came to want what everyone wants: a place to call home, free from persecution, the right to an education, and the right to start a family.
BACKGROUND TO THE CASE
While on a travel visa to the United States in late-2000, Ammar decided to come to Canada to seek asylum. In January 2001, he presented himself at the Canadian border, surrendered his passport (admitting at the outset that it was fake), and asked for refugee status. About a year later, while his claim was still being processed, and he attempted to make a life for himself, Ammar met Safiya Thiessen, a Canadian citizen. In December 2002, the two were married, and in early June 2004, Safiya gave birth to a baby girl who they have named Amal (“Hope”).
But hope is a hard thing to sustain in the face of bureaucratic indifference, or worse, in the face of a racist immigration policy that has found it increasingly-convenient to target and scapegoat Arabs and Muslims since 9-11. Ammar has pursued the standard legal channels available in Canada, but one by one, they have been closed to him. On September 23, 2002 the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) refused Ammar’s claim for refugee status, stating that the board did not consider him a “Convention Refugee.” On January 30, 2003 Ammar’s Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA) application was also denied, which upheld the earlier IRB decision and asserted that Ammar was not at risk in the event of deportation to Syria. This in itself was a stunning decision, given that the PRRA is specifically (or ostensibly) designed to prevent deporting someone to face torture. As a result, Ammar received his first deportation order date for August 11th and then a subsequent postponement until September 15th, 2003. Only after it became apparent that his legal options were fast vanishing, and heartfelt appeals to representatives in government were failing to ensure his safety, did Ammar pursue other avenues. At the 11th hour, Ammar sought sanctuary in the Katiri Catholic Church, went to the media to plead his case, and sought community support in the form of groups like Amnesty International and No One is Illegal (Winnipeg). A series of public rallies were held, pamphlets distributed, and letters written to raise the profile of his case.
A BRIEF REPRIEVE
In the end, perhaps wanting to avoid further escalation and political controversy, the Immigration Board granted Ammar a brief reprieve. A deal had been struck between Ammar’s lawyer Ken Zaifman, Liberal MP Reg Alcock, and then-Immigration Minister Denis Coderre that allowed Ammar what was referred to as a “reasonable period of time” to find a safe third country where he could stay, while his wife applied for sponsorship from Canada. It was far from an ideal or just solution, but considerably better than deportation to Syria. In a press conference dated September 15, 2003, Zaifman clarified that a “reasonable” time to find a third country constituted “days rather than weeks” – an amazing claim given that it was known by all that Ammar had no valid passport. Nevertheless, a number of options were pursued by Ammar and his family, including both Malaysia and Trinidad, the latter being a country where Ammar’s mother-in-law has family. None of these possibilities worked out, however – owing not to a lack of genuine effort, but to Ammar’s lack of a valid passport from any country – and Ammar was once again subject to deportation at a moment’s notice.
THE HUMANITARIAN & COMPASSIONATE APPLICATION
In May 2004, Ammar’s lawyer prepared and filed the Humanitarian and Compassionate Application (H&C), which is ostensibly designed to catch refugee cases that “fall through the cracks.” Unfortunately, less than 5% of such applications are successful – perhaps because humanity and compassion are employee traits that conflict with successful careers in the Immigration and Refugee Board. In July 2004, Ammar received written rejection of his H&C application. In this written statement, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officer Jill Francis concluded that “the applicant does not face a risk to his life or a risk to the security of his person, if he returns to Syria.”
The officer’s two-page rejection summary (dated July 13, 2004) was precisely what one would expect: cold, patronizing, and indicative of the author’s ignorance of the realities of human rights violations in Syria. Leaving aside the rejection letter’s tone (Ammar’s supporting evidence was dismissed as “self-serving” even though the very purpose of the H&C application is to advocate on behalf of one’s own case), CBSA officer Francis repeatedly maintained that Ammar’s H&C application, and his fears of persecution or torture in Syria, are “not consistent with the objective documentary evidence.” But what is the “documentary evidence” that Francis used to form her opinion? Francis rejected supporting statements and evidence supplied by Amnesty International, and instead cited Syrian Law Article 49, which openly states that membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is a capital offense. She went on to write that “The Article does not mention family members of the Moslem Brotherhood. The documentary evidence does not support the allegation that children of members of the Moslem Brotherhood are detained, tortured or killed in Syria.”
In other words, the “documentary evidence” to which Francis referred is the stated law on the books in Syria! The Syrian government does not specifically say that they will detain, imprison, torture, or kill relatives of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, they do not specifically say they routinely practice collective punishment (which would, of course, be a violation of the Geneva Conventions), and that profession (or more accurately absence) in Syrian law was accepted at face value, and used by Francis as “documentary evidence” to refute Ammar’s claim. The question that comes to my mind is this: Should someone who cannot distinguish between de jure legislation, and de facto practice, in a given country (let alone within an acknowledged dictatorship) be in charge of determinations about the level of risk faced by refugees in the event of deportation? Imagine the response to a claim that Salvadoran refugees’ fears of torture, death squads, and disappearance during the 1980’s were unfounded because Salvadoran law affirmed the rights of free expression, due process, fair trials, and electoral democracy. Imagine someone suggesting that Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Poles, Queers, and political dissidents were not at risk in Nazi Occupied Europe because the German Constitution did not specifically and publicly state that such people would be herded into concentration camps or killed in gas chambers!
Needless to say, this is the level of reasoning (or rather rubbish) being employed to deport Ammar. The H&C rejection notice also gave Ammar a further 15 days to submit documentary evidence “based only on any errors or omissions that may be contained in the Officer’s report.” It was not an admission of error, but a standard notification to submit final arguments and evidence. Ammar’s lawyer filed the necessary response in early August, including a point-by-point rebuttal to the claims made by CBSA officer Francis, and new supporting statements by Amnesty International – specifically listing half a dozen examples of relatives of members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have suffered detention without charge, trial or communication with the outside world, and who have suffered mistreatment or torture while in custody. In a letter dated August 5, 2004, Gloria Nafziger (Refugee Coordinator, Amnesty International, Toronto Office) stated:
“Amnesty International continues to believe that Mr. Khatib faces a serious risk of incommunicado detention, mistreatment and possible torture, and that he should not be forcibly returned to Syria. He faces this risk based on the fact that his father was a former member of the Moslem Brotherhood, who is now in exile in Saudi Arabia, and due to the fact that he used a false Syrian passport in order to travel to Canada.”
This does not even include mention of the four Canadian citizens of Syrian background who have been imprisoned and tortured in Syria in the last few years alone: including Arwad Al-Boushi, Abdullah Almalki, and most famously, Maher Arar, whose case is unusual only for the level of media attention it was granted, and the recent public inquiry into the circumstances of his deportation. How many Canadian citizens need to be tortured in Syria before Canadian politicians and immigration officials acknowledge that deporting anyone to Syria (especially those critical of its human rights record, or those, like Ammar who do not have the advantage of dual citizenship) carries enormous risks of imprisonment, torture, forcible conscription into the military, and possible death?
For whatever reason, Ammar was left alone (and in limbo) for most of the last year – perhaps due to a combination of factors, such as community support and protest in September 2003, the federal election, ministerial shuffling, the attention given the Maher Arar inquiry, as well as a civil service strike affecting the immigration board itself. Such things no doubt slowed the review and processing of Ammar’s H&C application, the filing of which does not in and of itself prevent deportation. But time has finally caught up, and Ammar received his latest deportation order in a letter dated October 27, 2004. There were no further reasons given for rejection of his application, and no responses to his latest legal submissions. There was simply a letter stating that Ammar must present himself for deportation at the airport on November 15th, and flatly noted that his bags must not exceed such and such size and weight … or he will be charged additional fees.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Only two avenues now remain, one legal and one political. Legally, Ammar has the option to apply for a Federal Court “stay of deportation” to postpone his removal to Syria, as well as apply for what is called a “Leave and Judicial Review” in the hopes of reconsidering the prior Immigration Board decision. Technically, the Federal Court cannot reverse the decision per se, but it can force the Immigration Board to review Ammar’s case a second time, and can insist that it be handled by a different agent than the one before. This is far from hopeful, as only a small fraction of such cases are even heard by the court, and even less are successful. Furthermore, win or lose, the attempt will cost Ammar and his family thousands of dollars in added legal fees, money they need to raise from community support, as they have already spent their entire savings on legal fees to date.
A CALL-OUT FOR COMMUNITY & NATIONAL SOLIDARITY
The second avenue is that of direct action: generate enough community outrage in Winnipeg and across the country over the obvious injustice of the case, and apply enough political pressure, to encourage the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Judy Sgro, to do the right thing. It is quite clear that the right thing will not happen on its own. In this spirit, we encourage people to check out some of the accompanying articles (links provided below) to further background information about both Ammar’s case, and the human rights situation in Syria. We encourage you to write a letter demanding justice and permanent status for Ammar in Canada (which ought to be a mere formality, even without the risks associated with his forcible return to Syria, given that he is married to a Canadian citizen, and has a newborn daughter who is also a citizen). If you cannot write a letter of your own, we encourage you to print out, sign, and mail in one of the sample letters we have provided below. Please contact your local MLA and MP. Ask them to raise the issue in their Provincial Legislature or Parliament. Tell them that you believe Canada should be a safe haven for those fleeing persecution and hardship, and that if Canadian immigration policy will not reflect such an obvious ethical imperative, then Canadian citizens will be forced to provide sanctuary on their own, in their own communities, places of worship, and homes … regardless of government policy.
Finally, we ask you to help organize solidarity actions in your own towns and cities. A public rally in support of Ammar and his family will be held in Winnipeg this coming Saturday, November 6th (3PM at the Legislature), and we encourage support actions across Canada on that day and in the coming weeks. If you would like to get involved, or find out about upcoming events related to Ammar’s case, please contact your local No One is Illegal group (committees exist in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver), or similar immigrant and refugee support networks in your community. Please also consider donating something to help offset Ammar’s legal expenses (no amount is too small).
Regardless of what you decide to take on, it is important to keep in mind that Ammar’s case is far from unique. It is not a case that has “slipped through the cracks” of an otherwise just system. Hundreds of non-status Arab, Muslim, and South Asian residents and refugees in Canada are being systematically targeted and deported across Canada, with significantly greater ease and public indifference since the events of 9-11, since the update of the Immigration Act, since the new “Security Certificate” legislation, and since the updated policy loophole that asserts (beyond all reason) that the United States ought to be considered a “safe third country” … and therefore all refugees traveling to Canada via the United States may automatically be denied refugee status. Sadly, Ammar’s case is not an “aberration” nor a “mistake,” but rather a logical consequence of Canadian immigration and refugee policy, which has a long and shameful history of scapegoating marginal communities, and restricting immigration and refugee protection on the basis of racist criteria, class, the perceived economic needs of Canadian elites, or the shifting political prerogatives of a given era. It is vital that we acknowledge this history, and this ongoing discriminatory policy, if we are to have any hope of challenging not just individual deportation cases like Ammar’s, but effecting a change in Canadian immigration and refugee policy – and more importantly practice – as a whole.
For information about upcoming actions related to Ammar’s case in Winnipeg contact No One is Illegal (Winnipeg) at [email protected] or 783-0787 ext. 3.
For further background or Syrian human rights information, click on one of the following links:
• Syrian Human Rights Committee (UK)
• Amnesty International
• Human Rights Watch
• CBC Manitoba Article, “MP, Amnesty International Fight Syrian’s Deportation:” http://winnipeg.cbc.ca/regional/servlet/View?filename=mb_khatib20041019
• Amanda Aziz & Erin Bockstael article (The Manitoban, Sept. 2003), “Deportation Still Looms for Syrian-born Student:” http://www.umanitoba.ca/manitoban/20030924/ne_04.html
For a sample letter to the Minister of Immigration & Citizenship (Judy Sgro) demanding justice for Ammar, contact No One is Illegal (Winnipeg).