One refugee's fight for justice: The case of Muhammed Sillah

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Photo: Justice for Muhammed Sillah

Muhammed, a refugee from Gambia, was arrested and detained on May 29 after having his request for asylum in Canada denied. He has since been detained at Immigration Holding Centre Rexdale, located in Etobicoke. An outspoken advocate of justice for the Gambian people, Muhammed has become an enemy of the repressive regime currently ruling Gambia under President Yahya Jammeh, and fears for his life if forced to return.

While in detention he has endured racist abuse, inadequate medical treatment for his heart murmur, and his wife Sarah has been barred from visiting him. Originally slated for deportation on June 11, 2013, the Federal Court granted Muhammed a stay, although he remains in detention, isolated from his family. Given the constraints placed unto him, Muhammed and I spoke over the phone from the Immigration Holding Centre.

Sarah has been active in the community coordinating the Justice for Muhammed Sillah campaign to save her husband's life and raise awareness of the flaws in Canada's immigration system.

The following are excerpts of interviews conducted with Muhammed and Sarah Sillah. These interviews were edited for length and clarity.

Riaz Sayani-Mulji (RSM): Sarah, take us through Muhammed's arrest -- how did it happen and what was the reason given for him being arrested?

Sarah Sillah (SS): Muhammed and I had a scheduled appointment on May 29th 2013 at the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) office in Mississauga. We had known at that point that Muhammed's refugee claim was denie and did not know what to expect going in there. So we sat down down with a CBSA officer and she explained to Muhammed that your refugee claim has been denied and therefore you don't have status in Canada. Yet Canada was willing to offer $2000 in a program where Muhammed could reintegrate back into the Gambia. Muhammed explained that returning to the Gambia was not about the money; it was that he could not go. At that point the CBSA officer explained to us that she needed both of our identification and was going to get a form for Muhammed to sign to pull out of this program. She came back 20 minutes later and all she said was to come meet her in Room 7. As soon as we went in two officers closed the door behind us, asked Muhammed to put his hands onto the wall, frisked him, asked him to put his hands behind his back, and then arrested him. Anything we said to them at that point was ignored; the excuse was that it's the law.

RSM: Why was the Canadian government going through with a deportation when there was a clear danger to Muhammed in returning to the Gambia?

SS: His deportation was scheduled for June 11, 2013 at 6p.m. What we did was submit an emergency stop motion to the federal court, and they at that point had a hearing with Muhammed and stayed his removal. The federal court did agree that due to the severity of the case, and due to Muhammed's express concern for his safety, they want to do is another assessment of his case. There is a process called the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA) that they used to offer to individuals upon a failed refugee claim. With the changes that have been made just last year, you cannot apply for the PRRA until a year goes by after your decision on your refugee claim. Which really doesn't make any sense, because that year is what then allows a removal order placed on them and gets them out of Canada. The purpose of the PRAA is to assess their safety -- if you have to wait a year then it becomes a program that really doesn’t help.

RSM: Muhammed what are the next steps in your case?

MS: I am quite hopeful that the federal court would see the credibility of my case and grant me asylum in Canada -- but besides that, if the federal court happened to fail to grant me asylum -- the CSBA would not hesitate to remove me from Canada and to deport me back to my country.

RSM: How has this changed your view of Canada and its immigration system?

MS: Honestly, the policy is really just to eradicate every immigrant in here that’s undocumented – there’s a rampant engagement of these immigration officials and no consideration for anyone, they are removing anybody and everybody from Canada that is not documented without giving any removal test or removal considerations. It is quite a disgrace.

SS: Up until this point I've never had an opportunity to see much of what happens to immigrants and refugees in Canada. I've never had to; I've never had anybody close to me that was trying to immigrate to Canada or claiming refugee protection. The more you get into this process, the more you really see. It’s been almost 2 years since Muhammed filed for protection, and the time, and the money, and the energy, and the visits, and the hearing; everything that has been involved in this process has been very disheartening. Muhammed's case is 110% legitimate -- it is not frivolous. Muhammed is a good man, he has no criminal record -- what they have put us through for something as simple as permanent residency ... Muhammed has explained to the Federal Court that if Canada doesn't want me in Canada, that's okay, but at least allow me to claim refugee protection somewhere else or at the very least keep me here until the President of the Gambia has been removed and it is safe for me to return home. So it's not about somebody just coming to Canada and trying to suck from the system and use what we have, this is genuinely something Muhammed needs for his life.

RSM: Muhammed, while in detention you've had bugs in your food and told after voicing your concern, "What, your mom doesn't cook you bugs in Africa" -- what other racist comments have you endured?

 MS: One of the CBSA officials asked me to release myself from detention through my parents by obtaining their "black magic."

RSM: Sarah what role do you think Muhammed's race and religion are playing in this case?

SS: At this point I'm so confused as to why there is so much injustice in Muhammed's case. Is it because he's black? Maybe, I don't know. Is it because he's Muslim? Maybe, I don’t know. But I can tell you that he is in no way a threat to anybody at all. There have been a lot of shifts in Canadians' views of Islam because of the media. It is important to understand that if we have 1000 extremists out of 1.7 billion Muslims (23% of the world’s population), that is less than 1% of Muslims who are partaking in these things. And we as Canadians cannot lose our compassion and our tolerance and our understanding of different religions and different races.

This is who Canada is -- if you weren't an immigrant, your parent probably was, or your grandparent was, or for sure your great-grandparent was. To start closing our minds to different people and different ways of life is to literally lose Canada's identity. I really hope that because Muhammed and I are Muslims, and because he is black, they are not stereotyping against him, but at this point because of the injustice, because of the process, because of the rudeness, because of the racial comments against him, that is the only thing I am left to believe is the reason. That is not what Canada is supposed to be. As a Canadian who was born and raised to respect one another, to respect other cultures, to respect other religions and to respect other ways of life, to all of a sudden to now see so much intolerance is shameful.

RSM: Sarah tell us about the Justice for Muhammed Sillah campaign you've been coordinating. What can Canadians do to save your husband from being deported to the Gambia?

SS: If people want to know more about what's happening in Muhammed's case they can go to this Facebook page. We also have some updates on what's happening to Muhammed in the detention centre and the retribution we've both been facing for speaking against this. We also have a petition that’s going on at Essa Bokkar Sey, the former ambassador of the Gambia, he has been watching closely what is happening as well.

RSM: Muhammed, what would you like to say to Canadians about your case?

MS: I would like every Canadian to look at what fairness is -- I would like every Canadian to represent what their country really stands for, which is to protect and be in association with the rights and freedoms of every human being around the world. I would like every Canadian to take my case as an example and look into giving anyone who is in a situation like mine the chance to come to Canada to be helped.


Riaz Sayani-Mulji hosts the radio show "Progressive Voices" that is featured on

Photo: Justice for Muhammed Sillah


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