September 21, 2012
Refugee Claims

Between January 2001 and June this year, 5,248 Vincentians – 4.77 per cent of the nation’s 2001 population applied for refugee status in Canada.

Of the 5,248 refugee claims by Vincentians during that period, 4,693  (89.2 per cent) were finalised, according to Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada statistics.

Of the 4,693 claims finalised, 1,547  (33 per cent) were accepted while 2,538 were rejected.

Some 354 claims (6.7 per cent of the total amount) were abandoned while 254  (4.8 per cent) were withdrawn.

Ottawa last week imposed visa requirements for Vincentians travelling to Canada, in a year when the number of Vincentian asylum seekers was 193 up to June,  “the latest date for which figures are available” compared to 683 in all of 2011, 712 in 2010, and 650 in 2009.

Citizen and Immigration Canada, in explaining the decision cited immigration violations “including Vincentians deported for crimes returning to Canada with passports issued under different names” and the large number of asylum seekers.

Documents on the Canadian Federal Court’s website say that Vincentians applying for refugee status in Canada had claimed sexual and physical abuse, threats against their life, economic hardship, and persecution because of politics and sexual orientation.

The development has set off a new round of political finger pointing between the government and the opposition here.

At least two opposition legislators in Kingstown and a Vincentian diplomat in Canada gave credence to at least three of the 1,547 claims that Canada accepted.

Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves had repeatedly told Vincentians not to file for asylum in Canada. He told citizens their claims were unlikely to succeed and could lead to the imposition of visa requirement on their compatriots.

The situation came into the spotlight again last November, after an article in a Toronto newspaper, citing violence against women in St Vincent and the Grenadines, in a year where five of 20 confirmed homicide victims were women, compared to two of 25 in 2010.

The article mentioned two women shot and killed in Campden Park in the weeks before the publication and asked if this country was the worst place on earth to be a woman.

In the wake of the article, Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace and Central Kingstown representative St Claire Leacock told a New Democratic Party (NDP) press conference that they had written letters to support the claims of some refugee seekers.

“I was asked to give a statement on the state of the economy in the cases I dealt with,” Eustace told SEARCHLIGHT on Tuesday, of the “five or six” persons he said he had written letters for.

The East Kingstown representative did not tell SEARCHLIGHT the names of these persons.

He further said he did not know how many of them succeeded.

“I know two called me back and say they had got through,” he said of the persons, “mainly from East Kingstown”, for whom he last wrote a letter “about two and a half years ago”.

Meanwhile, Leacock told SEARCHLIGHT in a separate interview on Tuesday that he wrote in support of the refugee claims of “less than half a dozen” people.

His letters were for “guys who they [were] in incidents where they [were] in court matters in which they had criminal activity and they had to flee for their life and that kind of thing, or witnesses to criminal activity”.

But Leacock said he was not sure about the outcome of the applicants’ claims.

“I don’t know if they ever got status,” he told SEARCHLIGHT.

Asked if he was willing to name these persons, Leacock said, “No. That won’t be fair to them.”

He, however, told this publication that “most”of the persons were from Central Kingstown “and maybe one from West Kingstown”.

SEARCHLIGHT was unsuccessful in its attempts on Wednesday to reach Steve Phillips, the Vincentian Consul General in Toronto. SEARCHLIGHT wanted to know how many letters he had written for persons seeking refugee status and how many were successful.

The article in the Canadian newspaper last year had said that Phillips had said shady immigration consultants had “duped” many Vincentians into making refugee claims.

“And those claiming domestic violence are running from financial difficulty, not fists,” he said last year.

But the diplomat on May 21, 2008 wrote a letter supporting the refugee claim of Leila Brown Trimmingham, a document published on the Canadian Federal Court’s website.

In his letter supporting Trimmingham’s claim, the Vincentian envoy said “her going home (to St Vincent) is potentially dangerous, both emotionally and physically, to her and her son.”

Phillips said, given their limitations and challenges, Vincentian police could not guarantee the 24-hour daily protection Trimmingham would “apparently need against this kind of perpetrator mentioned in her documents,” the Canada court document further said.

But Prime Minister Gonsalves said last week that his Unity Labour Party administration did not agree with the action of its envoy.

“When I saw that report, I called him and said ‘What kind of foolishness is this?’ And he explained the circumstances and I said ‘Listen, that was a mistake. You can’t do that’,” the prime minister told a press conference.

Gonsalves said that with so many bogus claims for asylum in Canada, the problem was going to come, “sooner or later”.

“Bona fide people will still get into Canada, just like how bona fide people still get into the United States of America. It’s only that another expense. It’s unfortunate but that is the case,” he said, noting that persons would have to travel to Trinidad to apply for a Canada visa.

Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs Senator Douglas Slater, speaking at a separate press conference last week, said Kingstown was “disappointed” by Ottawa’s decision.

“This is an issue we strongly contest and we will continue to do so,” he said.

And Eustace, in his radio programme on Monday, noted that Gonsalves has not visited Canada in years, even as he plans back-to-back trips to New York this month.

“The Prime Minister has gone to the United States so many times. He just had to go cross the border (to Canada) and deal with that. Carry the relevant people from Immigration and so on and ensure that you put a stoppage to that,” he said.

But as the to and fro continues between the government and the opposition and their spokespeople, Canada’s decision slammed shut one of the few remaining visa-free entry destinations Vincentians had in the developed world.

It sealed the visa-free access Kingstown and Castries enjoyed, even after Ottawa had previously closed that door to four of the eight other Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States member nations, leaving it open now only to Antigua and Barbuda and St Kitts and Nevis. (