In the basement of the Bruyère Centre for Immigrants in downtown Ottawa, Odette Uwambaye meets with refugees from her native Rwanda. Many of them have called Canada home for the past decade, but Uwambaye says a new policy has some “living in the trauma of going back.”
In July 2009, the federal government lifted a 15-year ban on deporting illegal immigrants to Rwanda. The temporary suspension had been in effect since 1994, when over one million Rwandans were systematically killed in a genocide that lasted approximately 100 days. But a government review concluded that the exceptional circumstances of the genocide had passed and that the conditions in Rwanda are now safe.
Illegal immigrants have until January 23, 2010 to file refugee claims requesting permanent residence.
Despite the country’s stability, Uwambaye says the announcement was unexpected for many of her clients who still consider themselves refugees.
“It was a complete nightmare to them,” Uwambaye recalls. “They called me and said, ‘What are we going to do? They’re sending us back home.’ They couldn’t sleep. The whole night they were thinking, ‘If they take us back home what is going to happen?’”
Excess glue is visible on the yellow office door where the block letters RSSFC are stuck to represent Rwanda Social Services and Family Counselling. Uwambaye founded the service in 2003 to support the diaspora of Rwandans living in Ottawa.
That’s where Alain, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, comes for advice on how to fill out paper work; on how to prove returning home could make him a walking target.
He came to Canada on a student visa in November 2005 with plans to study at the University of Alberta, but he never made it out West. Instead, he presented himself at an immigration office to tell his story — that he fled Rwanda after his father, a genocide survivor who was supposed to testify against alleged genocidaires, was killed earlier that year.
The Rwandan government established a grassroots community justice system, called Gacaca courts, to deal with the backlog in the country’s traditional courts in trying the more than 100,000 people imprisoned for allegedly participating in the genocide.
Gacacas rely on community participation and witness testimony, but Alain says many genocide survivors live in fear of being killed like his father if they take part.
“Rwanda is now stable for certain populations but the government can’t be everywhere. There are still consequences for genocide survivors who testify,” he says in his mother tongue, French. “It’s been 15 years. When is it going to end? It’s something we keep on asking ourselves.”
Alain may be facing deportation if his application for permanent residence on humanitarian grounds is denied.
In Canada, all illegal immigrants undergo risk assessments to ensure they are not deported to a country where they might face persecution or serious human rights violations, but the onus is on applicants to prove they are at risk.
They can also request judicial review if their request to stay is denied.
Uwambaye says that depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are common among genocide survivors and that having to prove deportation would put them at risk only adds to their anxiety.
When he first arrived in Canada, Alain says he was traumatized and sought counselling to overcome the pain of his father’s murder and what he witnessed during the genocide.
Even today, the 25-year-old fears that having his real name published will put him in danger. His mother is still in Rwanda and he says she continues to be threatened by those who are searching for him.
“I keep on reminding myself that I need to stay positive about the future. I hope that one day my mother can join me in Canada,” he says.
A double standard?
While some genocide survivors are filling out paper work to avoid deportation, suspected genocidaires get to stay in Canada indefinitely because of concerns that sending them back would result in persecution. It’s a double standard the Rwandan government’s own Genocide Fugitives Tracking Unit has contested.
One of the five most wanted identified by the tracking unit is Léon Mugesera, an academic living in Quebec City.
“We don’t know why government keeps him here. He’s not even in prison. He’s just out, enjoying his life,” Uwambaye says.
Mugesera and his family fled Rwanda in 1992 after he allegedly delivered a speech inciting hatred against the Tutsi ethnic minority. He was granted permanent status in Canada shortly after arrival.
Part of the problem in prosecuting Mugesera is that his speech came one-and-a-half years before the genocide, says Bruce Broomhall, an international criminal law professor from Montreal.
“In that case we’re not talking about someone who says ‘We have to kill all the Jews,’ and two hours later there’s a mob in the street killing Jews. It’s not that kind of causal link that was established in Mugesera’s case,” Broomhall says.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2005 that Mugesera should be extradited to Rwanda but concerns of persecution and that he would not be given a fair trial have kept him here. Mugesera’s lawyer, Guy Bertrand, refused to comment on the case, saying it’s in the hands of the government and the legal system.
The Rwanda Social Services and Family Counselling centre is helping Rwandans in Ottawa apply for permanent residence before the January 2010 deadline.
It’s a situation that frustrates Uwambaye.
“They want to deport people who are survivors of the genocide — who are targeted. It doesn’t make sense,” Uwambaye says. “I believe if they are sending other people, [Mugesera] should be sent too.”
The Canadian Border Service Agency would not comment on how the lifted ban might affect Mugesera’s case specifically, but an agency representative wrote in an email that “Canada is not a safe haven for people who were involved in serious acts of war crimes or crimes against humanity.”
Jayne Stoyles, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for International Justice, says that an overreliance on immigration measures, such as deportation, does not serve justice in either case.
“One is the concern about someone being extradited where they’ll face persecution themselves, and on the flipside people can be deported with very little evidence against them and they don’t get much of an opportunity to respond,” Stoyles says.
Uwambaye says it’s “disturbing” that alleged war criminals like Mugesera may be protected from the risk of persecution while victims of the genocide may be forced to return to Rwanda and rebuild the lives they lost.
“You can imagine those people who have been here for 10 years — sending them back, they are completely lost. And they have to start a new life if they go back. It will affect them.”
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