Stranger than fiction

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 Refugee Sandwich: Stories of Exile and Asylum
Fictional tales paint a true portrait of Canada's refugee board

A DECADE AGO, my entire concept of the Canadian immigration system as a benevolent passageway to a kind refuge for the downtrodden changed. I became closely involved in the security-certificate case of a UN-recognized Convention refugee and landed immigrant who had been convicted of a first-time, non-violent, minor drug offense in Canada. Despite the fact that he had been tortured and was under sentence of death in his country of origin, he was ordered deported as soon as he was freed on parole, having been declared a âeoedanger to the publicâe by some nameless bureaucrat in the Minister of Immigration's office whose job it was to rubber-stamp the "Minister's Opinion" form with illegible, pen-scrawled initials. He had no right to recourse or appeal.

During the 16 months our church group fought to stop the deportation (a federal court case and $15,000 in legal fees later, we succeeded!), I met quite a few refugee activists, as well as families and friends of refugee claimants and deportees. Most of them were involved in cases of law-abiding claimants, many of whom were victims of Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) rulings that were so unreasonable as to be perverse.

One of the activists I encountered was Mary Jo Leddy, who is known for her work with newly arrived refugees at the temporary shelter Romero House. She had just published a book called At the Border Called Hope: Where Refugees are Neighbours. It was filled with true, short stories about the refugees and their families who passed through Romero House.

Memorably, one of her stories describes a refugee claimant and torture victim, a strong, dignified man who was so intensely and insensitively grilled by the IRB panel about his past torture that he came out of the interview shaking, humiliated and devoid of hope. The book is filled with stories of everyday life for newcomers âe" their poverty and homelessness when they arrive, their experiences with neighbours and the community, and the frustration and sometimes tragedy they face when dealing with very bureaucratic and often quite unsympathetic immigration officials. By the end of the collection, I felt so emotionally involved with these people that I had to suppress the urge to give Romero House a call to see how they were doing now.

Nearly ten years later, I held the new release Refugee Sandwich by Peter Showler in my hands, a book that promises thirteen eye-opening, fictional vignettes that take us inside the refugee determination process in Canada. I will admit, I wasn't expecting to be all that impressed with it when I saw that Showler was a former chairperson of the IRB. I envisioned a book similar in structure to Leddy's, but with the members of the IRB (the decision makers in refugee determination hearings) cast as the heroes and heroines, always noble if not always correct, struggling to be fair and kind to everyone despite huge caseloads.

I was disabused of that prejudice within the first ten pages. Not only does Showler tackle complex legal and ethical issues in determining eligibility for refugee status, but he introduces us to the patronage-riddled and often incompetent bureaucracy that administers the refugee system in Canada. Substandard interpreters, overly aggressive questioning by hearing officials, and the lack of a meaningful appeals process are illustrated. His statement in the afterword that a âeoeminority of weak members making bad decisionsâe causes âeoea culture of cynicism for both members and the public service staff,âe is a recurring theme. Showler uses the stories to explore the result of choosing IRB members based on political patronage, not on having the knowledge, skills and sensitivity necessary to deal with broken people, and the grey areas introduced by cases where situations don't always fit into neat categories, and evidence often consists of personal statements rather than documents.

On this point, he is also somewhat sympathetic to IRB members it is often difficult to know whether a person is telling the truth when you don't know very much about their country or the politics there, and you have no documentary evidence from the claimant. From "Real Nowhere":

My youngest son uses the word "morph" a great deal. He has been raised in an era of computer-generated images where cartoon and even live images can easily "morph" into something quite different. In response to any implausibility or inconsistency that we raised, the claimant's story would morph seamlessly into something else, always with the small graphic details suggesting truth.

To our eyes, he arrived in Canada without documents, speaking a language that is common to several African countries. He had produced no documents at the hearing and had told a story that was complicated, colourful, persuasive, and as thin as tissue paper. We were not certain of his identity, his nationality, his means of entering Canada, or his real motives for coming. Our only certainty was that he could genuinely claim to be a nowhere man.

We were all tired after backtracking too many times through the minute details of his story, details that had begun to blur and fade through overexamination, like a photograph that has been handled too many times. Discouraged and worn out, I suggested that we adjourn for yet another fifteen minute break.

It's pretty difficult to be an expert on 50 countries, their political and opposition parties, their culture, and their human-rights record. Even with researchers who can look up the basic political and human rights reports on the country, the language, cultural and regional differences make each case quite unique, and more difficult to determine. Regardless of a member's expertise, a case often comes down to whether the person testifying is credible. And in many cases, whether the person is telling the truth or not is quite an important determination to make. Refugee claimants from Rwanda were the subject of two of the stories, and mentioned in passing in a couple of other ones. If the IRB member were to make a mistake and accept someone as a genocide victim, when in fact they were a perpetrator, then sanctuary might be given to a human-rights abuser rather than an abuse victim.

However, the first story in the book, "Excluding Manuel" illustrates that even the principle of not giving refuge to a human rights abuser can be a grey area. In it, a man declaring refugee status from his unnamed South or Central American country might have been involved in perpetrating human-rights abuses himself, and therefore would be ineligible for protection in Canada. But his involvement was not direct, and he fled the country when his orders became too direct and his conscience could not handle crossing that line. He would be killed for deserting if he returns. Does he get sanctuary in Canada? This is one of the many hard questions that IRB members must decide on a daily basis.

Showler's stories draw a picture of a system that needs a lot of improvement, but he is not uniformly negative; he reminds the reader that Canada's asylum process, while deeply flawed, can be favourably compared to the refugee determination processes of many other western countries, particularly European ones. He rarely vilifies his characters; they are three-dimensional human beings, with conflicting feelings about their roles in the process, some more likeable than others. And he gives some good, concrete suggestions for improvement and change in his remarks at the end of the book: reforming the patronage system of appointments to the Board, and a fair appeals process for claimants who are refused.

Although the stories themselves are fiction, Showler gives us a fantastic guided tour of the immigration system. And this fiction is so gripping and true-to-life that I had to remind myself that the people in the stories don't actually exist. Except that, actually, they do. While he cannot tell us stories about real refugee claimants, one gets the sense that these stories are true in that we are reading about very realistic and typical situations and people. Showler uses fiction to tell us truths about the asylum process that are otherwise hidden from the general public.

For anyone who wants an inside look at the organizational culture and process of the refugee industry in Canada, this book is required reading.--Michelle Langlois

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