Gay Ugandans fleeing persecution are being discouraged from applying to Canada for refugee status because of overwhelming delays at the Canadian mission in Nairobi, according to testimony at the Commons subcommittee on international human rights.

University of Ottawa law professor Nicole LaViolette, who specializes in sexual minorities and refugee law, appeared before MPs Feb 17 to lay out some of the realities faced by gays and lesbians trying to flee Uganda, beginning with those delays.

“It’s the main stumbling block to anything that you might want to do to put in place assistance to people fleeing persecution in Uganda,” LaViolette says. “That’s true of any refugee who happens to be in that part of the world. Their chances of being resettled in Canada are just lousy because of the processing time and the processing delays in Nairobi.”

Under a UN convention, a refugee has to be outside of his or her own country before a refugee claim can be made. LaViolette says that the possibility of gay Ugandans fleeing to, for instance, Kenya for five years is unrealistic. Neighbouring countries are not necessarily any more supportive than their home country.

Exceptions have been made: a Canadian program contains a list of countries from which refugees can apply without leaving.

“The department has been unable to modify the list, to be flexible, to respond to changing concerns because it requires a change going to cabinet, and it requires a regulatory change,” LaViolette says. “The in-country process that does exist is not one that’s going to work here. It’s just not adaptable and flexible enough to use it.”

News that refugee claimants – even those going through private sponsorship – are being told explicitly to avoid applying for resettlement in Canada was alarming news for MPs on the subcommittee.

“I found that shocking, and it’s one place where we have to deal with the officials and figure out what is going on there,” says Liberal MP Mario Silva. “We’ve got to figure out how to expedite the system because it’s a life-and-death situation that we’re dealing with. The government has to look at it as a priority.”

NDP MP Wayne Marston found the revelation to be sad.

“To find that there’s obstruction or a layer of bureaucracy or systemic homophobia in places that slow down that process and make it so the point where it’s 'Don’t bother trying to go to Canada – they’ll stall you until you can’t make it,'” Marston says. “That was very troubling.”

LaViolette said that while officials in Nairobi may not be homophobic necessarily, they simply might not understand the on-the-ground realities of gay Ugandans and suggested that more training was needed. She also suggested that the mission have some visible identifiers that Canada is a safe place for gay people by using posters in the offices, or other such cues.

LaViolette also suggested looking at a Canadian program where the families of Afghan interpreters can come to Canada and get permanent residency and some of the same support as refugees, given that their lives would be in danger because of their aid to Canadians.

“There clearly is a mechanism somewhere to create that kind of a special program,” LaViolette says. “I suggested to the committee that they look into it.”

One of the complicating factors is that, unlike previous resettlement programs, like the Karen refugees from Burma, gay Ugandans are not easy to locate within the population. To help Canadian officials identify them, work would have to be done on the ground with refugee groups familiar with the situation and able to identify those most at risk.

One way of facilitating that would be to set up a satellite mission in Kampala, assuming that a special in-country resettlement program could be created.

“What you would do then is maybe send someone who’s working out of Nairobi maybe once a month to go to Kampala, process applications and work that way – work with some local refugee groups who can identify individuals who are in dire need of fleeing, and that’s the idea,” LaViolette says. But it would need new resources.

“My concern is again, if you’re going to do a satellite mission of that sort, you cannot be pulling away the already insufficient resources in Nairobi to create that,” LaViolette says. “Then that just means other refugees are going to suffer, and as much as I care about [lesbian, gay, bi and trans] refugees, there are refugees in Kenya who’ve been waiting years and years for their file to be processed.”

Both Silva and Marston hope that LaViolette’s recommendations can be brought to the minister. Neither of the two Conservative members of the subcommittee asked questions of LaViolette, and while the chair, Conservative MP Scott Reid, did ask a few questions, he did not make himself available to Xtra for an interview.

“I’m really pushing strongly to have a report because I want to have something tabled in both Foreign Affairs [committee] and in the House, and put some concrete recommendations forward,” Silva says.

“These are people that are on a death watch,” says Marston. “We’re saying to the minister, Take action. Let’s find a way. If we have to send a special team over there, that’s what we need to do.”
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