Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Can't prove he's gay, teen is denied asylum

Globe and Mail
7 February 2007
Can't prove he's gay, teen is denied asylum
Nicaraguan fears his return home as board member unconvinced over sexuality


Alvaro Antonio Orozco, a gay teen runaway from Nicaragua, was denied asylum in Canada because the Immigration and Refugee Board didn't believe he was a homosexual.

Mr. Orozco, now 21, is slated for removal next Tuesday to a country where sodomy is illegal and to a family that he says beat him and taunted him for his sexual orientation ever since he was a young boy.

"My father called me 'marica' [a derogatory word for gay], and told me he would beat it out of me," Mr. Orozco said. "But it's impossible to prove you are gay."

Soft-spoken with delicate features, wearing a pink-checked shirt, Mr. Orozco certainly looks the part, and says that from a young age he felt and behaved differently. He was drawn to artistic pursuits and often played indoors as a child, and today aspires to be a nurse.

But Deborah Lamont, the IRB member who heard his case via video-conference from Calgary, didn't believe Mr. Orozco was gay because he wasn't sexually active during his teen years, and wasn't clear about his sexual orientation when he fled Nicaragua at the age of 12.

El-Farouk Khaki, his lawyer, says the case shows the difficulty of gay refugee claimants who come from a macho or homophobic culture and are unaccustomed to living an openly gay lifestyle. It also reflects a stereotype in assuming gay teens are more sexually active than heterosexual teens.

"I think the decision shows a lack of understanding of issues facing queer kids from homophobic cultures and what they have to deal with in terms of gender stereotypes," he said.

Mr. Orozco's last hope is to appeal for a ministerial permit from Immigration Minister Diane Finley. "We are asking the minister to grant him a stay of removal on humanitarian grounds and allow him to stay," Mr. Khaki said.

Mr. Khaki, who didn't represent Mr. Orozco at the hearing, is also filing a motion to reopen his refugee claim, arguing there was a breach of natural justice because the member failed to consider guidelines on treatment of a vulnerable person.

Mr. Orozco is vulnerable, his lawyer added, because he is young, uneducated, alone, a victim of domestic abuse and homeless. He also stutters, which impedes communication.

In Nicaragua, a 1992 amendment to the penal code criminalized same-sex relationships, and the law is vague enough that individuals campaigning for gay rights or providing sexual health information could also be prosecuted, according to a 2006 Amnesty International report.

"The law criminalizing sodomy was introduced in 1992 and [there] was a concerted effort to put it on the books despite lobbying and criticism by human rights groups," said Mr. Khaki, who has represented other gay Nicaraguan refugee claimants with success.

Since coming to Toronto two years ago, Mr. Orozco says he has finally felt comfortable to live a gay lifestyle, and spends his weekends at gay bars. "The law protects me here. In Nicaragua, I could be put in jail," he says. "I still fear my father, who threatened that he would kill me for being gay."

His life story is a dramatic one: He ran away from home just before his 13th birthday, fleeing his alcoholic father. He hitchhiked through Central America and Mexico, and made it to the Mexican-Texas border, where he swam across the Rio Grande with a Honduran boy. However, he nearly drowned after his legs became entangled in algae and he couldn't swim against the strong currents. His Honduran friend saved him, and they swam to safety.

U.S. immigration officials arrested Mr. Orozco, and he spent a year in a detention centre in Houston. He was 14. He was released when he agreed to return to Nicaragua. Instead, he ran away and was taken in by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Terrified they would reject him if they discovered he was gay, he says he kept his sexual orientation hidden. He was also scared because he was living in the United States illegally.

IRB member Ms. Lamont didn't accept this explanation. "I found the claimant's many explanations unsatisfactory for why he chose not to pursue same-sex relationships in the U.S. as he alleged it was his intention to do so and he wanted to do so," she ruled.

Instead, she concluded: ". . . he is not a homosexual . . . and fabricated the sexual orientation component to support a non-existent claim for protection in Canada."

Mr. Orozco said he didn't seek asylum in the United States on the advice of church officials there. In 2005, he took a bus to Buffalo after reading about Canada's support for gay rights and generous asylum program on the Internet. He made his way to a Buffalo shelter, Vive La Casa, which helped him make a refugee claim.

Today, Mr. Orozco is being assisted by a Toronto program for gay newcomers and refugee claimants run by Supporting Our Youth (SOY). Gay refugee claimants often have trouble persuading IRB members they are sincere, especially if they are poor witnesses, said Suhail Abualsameed, program director.

Mr. Orozco went before the IRB with no supporting documentation from gay advocates. "She asked me for proof of being gay and I didn't have it," he said. "But it is illogical that she didn't believe me."