Sunday, March 18, 2007

Two families in need, two humane rescues

From Globe and Mail 17/03/2007

The fine quality of Canadian mercy has blessed two Iranian families stranded in separate purgatories this week. First, through the intercession of Immigration Minister Diane Finley, an Iranian couple and their Canadian-born son received temporary resident permits that secured their transfer from a Texas detention centre. Then the department accepted an Iranian woman and her two children as government-assisted refugees, ending nine months of precarious existence at Moscow's international airport. In a world of suspicion and peril, it is reassuring that Canada can still find room for legitimate political fugitives on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

The plight of the family stranded in Texas was dire. Majid Yourdkhani and Masomeh Alibegi originally fled Iran in 1995 and sought asylum in Canada. In 1997, their son Kevin was born in Toronto. Eight years later, when their claim for refugee status was rejected, they were deported. On arriving in Iran, Mr. Yourdkhani maintains, he was taken away from his family to a prison cell for three months of brutal detention. On release, he tapped the services of a people smuggler. He and his family were taking a circuitous route back to Canada, using false passports, when the plane made an unexpected landing in the United States. Their ruse was detected, and the trio wound up in a spartan family detention centre.

The case for mercy became clear only when the U.S. government, which takes an exceedingly dim view of false passports, declared that it had sufficient reason to believe that the family faced a credible risk of persecution in Iran. With that corroboration, Ms. Finley acted, instructing her department to issue temporary resident permits. That is a rare ministerial action. Of the 13,970 temporary resident permits in 2005, only 433 were issued at the minister's direction. Now in Canada, the parents cannot ask for refugee status because they were rejected once. Instead, if they pass medical, criminal and security checks, they can apply to stay as permanent residents on humanitarian grounds.

The poor souls in the airport, Zahra Kamalfar and her children, had an even more traumatic saga. In 2004, Ms. Kamalfar and her husband Iman were arrested for political protests. He was killed while in police custody. A year later, Ms. Kamalfar, out of prison on a 48-hour pass, fled Iran with false travel papers, heading for Canada by way of Turkey, Russia and Germany. She was arrested in Germany, held for 13 months and then sent back to Russia. When Russia sought to deport her, the European Court of Human Rights put a stay on that order.

But Ms. Kamalfar was now in legal limbo. For 10 months, she and her children lived at the Moscow airport, relying on the kindness of Aeroflot officials for food vouchers, sleeping on the floor and bathing in public washrooms, virtual prisoners in a poignantly mobile world. Last December, after an investigation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officially recognized her and her children as refugees. Because she has a brother in Canada, her lawyers appealed to Canadian authorities. Ottawa accepted her and her children as government-assisted refugees – there were more than 7,400 people in this category in 2005 – and issued temporary resident permits to enable them to leave immediately.

As one of the few nations that still accept immigrants, Canada always walks a fine line. It must somehow preserve its humanitarian openness while ensuring that its hospitality is not abused. There are so many desperate refugees, including the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have fled their homeland's violent war for sanctuary in neighbouring states. This week, in both cases, Ottawa made the right call, rescuing people who could never go home again and who had no prospects of a good life in their current situations. Such justice and mercy in a dangerous world are commendable.