More than 250 “serious criminals, war criminals and human rights violators” are living among us as their files sit in the immigration minister’s office for a final decision on removals.
According to government data obtained by Torstar News Service, about 150 of these foreign nationals have been granted refugee status but were deemed inadmissible and thus unable to become permanent residents, because the government believes they were involved in serious criminality, international human rights violations or threats to national security. All are waiting for a “danger opinion” from the minister.
The rest haven’t met the criteria for refugee status and are awaiting a ministerial decision on their pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) — an evaluation of the risks they face if deported to their country of origin, said Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Lawyers and sources told Torstar most of these individuals are released into the community with conditions, while waiting for the minister’s representatives to deliver a decision.
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Convicted Palestinian terrorist Mahmoud Muhammad Issa Mohammad was deported from Canada last year, but her lawyer, Barbara Jackman, said her client’s file had sat in the immigration minister’s office for eight years for a final decision on his removal.
Last May Jason Kenney, then immigration minister, took the unusual step of publicizing the deportation of Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad. A convicted Palestinian terrorist, Mohammad had lived in Canada since 1987 as a permanent resident and was deported to Lebanon.
While Kenney blamed flaws and loopholes in the system for allowing the 70-year-old man to avoid deportation, Mohammad’s lawyer later told the media her client’s file had sat at the minister’s office for eight years, waiting for a decision on whether the risk he posed to Canada outweighed the danger he might face upon his deportation.
There are apparently many other such cases out there Canadians don’t know about.
Government data showed the majority of the 250 backlogged cases were received after 2009, and just 85 were finalized in 2013, including some withdrawn and cancelled for various reasons, such as a successful appeal of a deportation order in court, or a voluntary departure.
“The statistics provided by CIC show that the yearly output is lower than one would reasonably expect. This would be a source of significant concern for Canadians,” said Reg Williams, a retired director of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) for the Greater Toronto region.
“Here you have a situation where the Parliament has deemed these cases to be the most serious, yet the bureaucracy at CIC and CBSA is unable to reflect this priority by delivering the numbers. Canadians should be justifiably outraged, because it is incongruent with the government’s objective to expeditiously finalize and remove the most serious cases.”
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said the government passed the measures in the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act last year to make it easier to remove dangerous foreign criminals and make it harder for them to come here.
“We will be able to better screen people coming to Canada through the electronic travel authorization, the collection of fingerprints and photographic data . . . These measures will help us better protect the safety and security of Canadians,” said department spokesperson Remi Lariviere.
Lariviere said there is no stated target time for processing such cases, which are prioritized based on the individual circumstances. How long it takes depends on the complexity of the case.
“There are approximately 250 cases pending decisions overall. Many of these cases are not ready for analysis and final decision,” he told Torstar.
But critics say Ottawa is not actively pursuing these files because it knows it does not have a strong case against the individuals. They point out that immigration laws have much lower threshold for evidence than the criminal system, and officials tend to cast the net too wide and wrongly label someone as a threat.
In December, Canada’s privacy commissioner chided border officials for the loose use of the term “war criminals” to describe Ottawa’s highly touted “most wanted” program, which publicized the photos and personal information of suspected criminals online based on “reasonable grounds” to believe they had in fact committed such crimes.
That critique followed last summer’s Supreme Court decision criticizing the federal government’s broad-brush approach, which led to innocent people being labeled “war criminals” and denied protection.
“The government comes up with petty things against them and leave them in limbo because it doesn’t want to appear to be kind to them,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman, who has represented many of these cases. “They don’t want to open a political can of worms.”
She cited the case of Sugunanayake Joseph, a 76-year-old Sri Lankan woman who came to Canada after her husband, a Tamil activist, was assassinated in 2005.
Officials alleged Joseph was inadmissible because she had supported her late husband’s career and accompanied him to political events, which amounted to her complicity in crimes against humanity.
Last October, the woman again tried and failed to persuade the federal court to order the government to make a decision on her long overdue pre-removal risk assessment, so she could move on with her life.
On one hand, Jackman said, the government refuses to grant these people any legal status in Canada. On the other, it sits on these files and wishes their destitution would make them leave the country on their own.
“If somebody is a real threat, they can and they will deport the person. They don’t want to create a perception that they are soft on crimes or anything. Any humane decision is felt as an admission the government is kind of wrong,” said Raoul Boulakia, president of the Refugee Lawyers’ Association of Ontario.
“Being in limbo is like a perpetual life sentence. How many days does it take the minister’s representative to read a case?”
However, Immigration’s Lariviere said the allegation leveled by the critics that these are petty criminals is “completely false.”
“These cases involve individuals who have already been determined to be inadmissible by highly trained officials. Danger opinions and restricted PRRAs are based on the unique circumstances of each individual case and concerning very different inadmissibilities,” he said.
“The most typical type of evidence found in cases based on serious criminality, which represent approximately 75 per cent of the cases, is official information related to convictions of a serious nature.”
However, Williams, the former border agency director, claims the low rate of clearing these files shows “willful neglect and a failure in the management” of the cases.
“If a case is a priority, it needs to be accorded the proper level of resources and managed as a priority. This is the basic role of senior management,” said Williams.
“Unfortunately, the manner in which these cases have been managed in the past years and continuing to the present makes a mockery of the government’s priorities.”