Luck of the draw for Whitehorse refugee claimants

Whitehorse resident Jacqueline Garcia, her mother and four of her sisters made identical arguments when seeking refugee status in Canada. Two were allowed to stay, three will be deported back to Mexico.

Whitehorse resident Jacqueline Garcia, her mother and four of her sisters made identical arguments when seeking refugee status in Canada.

Two were allowed to stay, three will be deported back to Mexico.

For Canada’s 20,000 annual refugee claimants, the Canadian refugee system is a frustrating quagmire of glaring inconsistencies

“Refugee determination in Canada is, to some extent, a lottery,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

Refugee cases are often reviewed by a single official. A claimant’s future in Canada—or immediate deportation—rests on the whims of that sole civil servant.

“There’s just one person that decides your fate,” said Dench.

The fickle nature of the refugee board was captured in a 2009 independent report that compiled the acceptance rates of refugee officials across Canada.

Some members were shown to grant refugee status with a frequency as low as four per cent. Others granted refugee status to “virtually all the cases they heard,” said the report.

Garcia’s family left Mexico in 2006. They were fleeing a relentless tormentor, a man who lived in their community outside Mexico City.

Garcia’s older sister Angelica was sexually abused and stalked by the man when she was in her mid-teens.

After she fled to Canada, the man focussed on the rest of the family with a relentless stream of threatening letters and phone calls.

In early 2006, he kidnapped Garcia’s sister Catalina for three days.

Mexican police ignored the family’s appeals.

“They never do nothing,” said Garcia.

Within a week of Catalina’s release, the family packed their bags for Canada, arriving at Vancouver International Airport as refugee claimants.

Two days after they landed in Canada, all the windows in Garcia’s house were broken. A note made of letters cut from a newspaper was left at the scene.

Angelica was immediately granted refugee status, and now lives in Kelowna as a permanent resident. Garcia’s other sister, Maribel, was ordered to leave, but managed to stay based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Garcia, her two children, her mother, and her sister Yaretzi, as well as Yaretzi’s daughter, have been ordered out of Canada by July 1st.

A two-month extension was granted to allow Garcia to finish her high school diploma at FH Collins Secondary School.

“They said yes to Angelica, and they said no to us, even when we said it was the same guy, the same guy that made Angelica’s life miserable and kidnapped Catalina,” said Garcia.

“People that knew our situation, they were sure that they would say yes to us,” she said. “I don’t really know why they said no. I just think it depends on who is taking the decision.”

Catalina was forced to return to Mexico in September.

“She’s living in another state in Mexico, she’s hoping that this guy doesn’t find her,” said Garcia.

In 2004, 52 Latin American refugees and refugee claimants came to the Yukon from communities around Toronto.

“There was a rumour that spread like wildfire in the Latin American refugee community that if they went to the Yukon, somehow their refugee claims would be looked on more favourably, which obviously wasn’t true because the law is the law from wherever you are,” said Michael Dougherty, co-chair of Sacred Heart Cathedral’s social justice committee.

In fact, the opposite was true. In coming to Whitehorse, claimants abandoned Toronto’s established network of legal refugee help services.

They also left the jurisdiction of the Toronto branch of the refugee board. Instead, they found themselves being processed by the much-harsher Vancouver branch.

“There’s very sharp differences in acceptance rates between Vancouver board members and ones in Toronto,” said Dench.

The migration to the North also sharpened the scrutiny of refugee officials.

“Because they came here, attention was drawn to them, so the deportations started,” said Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, who has championed several refugee claimants.

Two of the claimants were deported within the first few months. A steady stream of deportations plagued Whitehorse’s Latin American community from then on, breaking up families and stripping local businesses of valued employees.

In 2004, Whitehorse resident Katherine Zuniga was ordered to return to Costa Rica with her husband and two small children.

“(Katherine’s) mother and sister had been approved as refugees in Toronto, and the only difference between the files that we could see was that Katherine was in Whitehorse,” said Karp, who, along with wife Joy, helped the Zunigas with their case.

At times, parents would be deported, but their Canadian-born children would be forced to stay behind.

“Those who are really in need of the shelter of Canada are being sent back, and it’s a shame,” said Karp.

“I live here with my two sons, I’m a single mom, I’m working and studying, I’m just asking them to give me another chance to stay,” said Garcia.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

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