3 min

Believe the hype

Refugees evaluated according to tourist info

Credit: Joshua Meles

Immigration Officials are using tourist information to assess whether a country is safe for queers or not.

“There are no strict rules on what is admissible,” says Dominique Forget, a spokesperson for the Immigration And Refugee Board.

But Toronto lawyer Michael Battista says gay-positive tourist information is no reflection of a country’s human rights record.

“It creates a distorted perception of the country,” he says.

In these cases, claimants seeking protection under the grounds of race, religion, nationality, social group or sexual orientation could be denied protection because of tourist information or any other piece of information refugee protection officers collect about their country of origin. Forget says the officers are free to decide what information is relevant but members, the judge-like people who preside over the cases, determine the importance of information like tourist documents.

“It’s up to the member to decide what weight to give to this particular piece of evidence,” she says.

Battista says no matter what the weight, the information is damaging – all tourist information is inherently biased, designed to improve the appearance of a country.

He found out about the policy when he presented a recent case for a Mexican client, seeking refugee status in Canada based on his sexual orientation. The information package put together for the hearing by the protection officer was full of gay tourist websites and e-mails attached to those websites promoting Mexico’s travel industry.

Battista says the promotional material painted a stereotypical and negative image of gay men and doesn’t represent real life in Mexico.

“It depicts the primary interests of gay men as socializing, parties, sexual activity and lack of commitment, particularly in relationships,” says Battista.

The package, which focussed on the resort community of Puerto Vallarta, contained blurbs like, “If you are into Mexican men, there are plenty of good-looking ones around.”

It also states: “It is a voyeur’s paradise, with young Mexican men and tourists proudly showing off their assets and occasionally sharing them.”

Battista says making use of this information gives the idea that Mexican men are open about gay sex.

“I think it creates a negative view towards these claims, that somehow these little pockets of Mexico are representative of what’s going on in the whole country.”

He says Mexico is still a violent society with a machismo attitude. The website for the International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission, an organization monitoring human rights violations around the globe, gave an example of bar raids last spring in Aguascalientes by police that involved beatings and strangulation, ending in 38 arrests.

The organization details other accounts of human rights violations including a recently-passed ordinance in Tecates that penalizes men who dress as women, and in Monterrey, accounts of people forced to have sex with police officers or pay a fine simply because they are gay.

Battista has voiced his concerns in a letter to board chairman Jean-Guy Fleury, asking for specific guidelines in sexual orientation cases. With specific ones for gender-based claims, he says the board would benefit from established ones for sexual orientation.

He would also like to see better training in how members and officers handle these cases.

“There has to be training for decision makers on these issues,” he says. “Refugee protection officers have a role to save these peoples lives and that involves an understanding of the context in which these people live.”

Forget says that refugee officers and members are well trained to handle all the cases the board sees.

“That’s what our members do day in and day out,” she says. “They are specialized with one area of the world and become very familiar with that one area.”

She says they work hard to meet the needs of each claim to see if protection in Canada is required. She says that if claimants don’t like a decision, they can appeal to the Federal Court.

“If the Federal Court intervenes, we will re-hear a claim,” she says. “There could have been an error in facts and we review that.”

Although Battista has yet to hear from the board, he hopes his letter will have a positive effect and improve future cases.

“There’s not a lot of accurate information out there,” he says. “This is why this is so dangerous. It’s important that an accurate perception be presented.”

* The International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission is at