4 min

Immigration ruling may be Ugandan woman’s death sentence

Leatitia Nanziri hopes for reprieve from federal judge

“Leatitia Ddamulira Nanziri is not a Convention Refugee or a Person in need of protection. Therefore her claim is rejected.”

That may be Leatitia Nanziri’s death sentence.

Nanziri is choking back sobs, retelling the story of how she came to Canada. She says she faced abuse, torture and arrest at the hands of the police force in her home country of Uganda. Endured rape at the hands of a police officer who confined her. Lost her job, was disowned by her family and faced a slew of abuse. All because she’s a lesbian.

A friend helped Nanziri flee Uganda in 2004 — she was hoping for a better life in Canada.

She arrived in Toronto and gave birth to her first child two months later. She began attending school as an international student. She went to work after graduation, taking two jobs to support her two young children — one now 19 months, the other eight years old.

Nanziri was to be sent back to Uganda Aug 5, but a federal court judge stayed her deportation on Aug 2 until her appeal is completed. That may just be a temporary reprieve.

Xtra reported on July 31 that Nanziri’s case before the Toronto Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) was shot down. It’s not that the IRB doesn’t think it’s dangerous in Uganda — government recognizes that homosexuality is outright criminalized in the country — it’s that they don’t believe Nanziri is a lesbian.

What evidence is the board using? The main reason it gave for overturning her application was that “her account did not have the aura of a genuine recounting of actual events and experiences.” In the 14-page decision, the IRB attempts to poke holes in Nanziri’s account.

The decision — provided to Xtra by Citizenship and Immigration Canada — offers new insight into how the IRB looks at cases of gay and lesbian refugees. Rulings such as these are often protected by Canada’s immigration legislation. This case is an exception.

The refugee protection officer assigned to her case — C Duggan — faults Nanziri on a number of fronts. First, it is argued that Nanziri, as a university graduate, should have known to file a refugee protection claim immediately upon entering Canada. Nanziri says she had no idea this was required. The board also discredits her testimony because it argues that her employer — who Nanziri claims fired her because she is gay — didn’t take back her ID and security badge. It also states that it suspects the termination letter is fake because it contains a typo.

Delving into Nanziri’s claim that she is a lesbian, the board argues that she is embellishing when she states that “Edith, her high school friend, introduced her to sex toys” because the board says this information is “unsolicited.” It further goes on to disagree that Nanziri was abused in secondary school. Nanziri recounted that she had a “close relationship” with Edith and because of this was attacked for being gay. Duggan dismisses this, writing “a ‘close relationship’ between two women . . . would not be reason enough to suspect a homosexual relationship.”

Nanziri was subsequently arrested and detained by Ugandan police, who she says repeatedly raped her. She continued to go to the police station, saying that she had no choice. The board writes that “she voluntarily gave herself up, so to speak, several times.”

Nanziri says that she continued to return because repeated rape is better than the alternative — being charged with homosexuality, which could carry the penalty of death. The board disagreed that subjecting herself to forced sex would protect her from charges.

In the most surreal part of the testimony, Nanziri recounts that she was confined to a jail cell and fed only water and salt. The board, looking “on the balance of probabilities,” says that this “stretched credulity.” In fact, surviving two weeks on only water is not only possible, it is a fasting diet for health junkies. Three weeks is the common breaking point for many of those who stop eating food.

The board even glances over Nanziri’s claims to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as diagnosed by a psychiatrist, because “the conclusion was based solely on the information provided [to the doctor] by the claimant herself.”

According to IRB guidelines, a psychiatric evaluation — even when it’s done outside the periphery of the court — “is an important piece of evidence that must be considered.”

Sections of the decision appear to be in direct contrast to the IRB’s position on dealing with refugees who claim sexual orientation as grounds for persecution. The IRB says that officers undergo training that teaches them to avoid stereotyping and to acknowledge that potential refugees may have difficulty speaking about their experiences.

There are three criteria to determine an applicant’s credibility: information from the person’s relationships and family, their homosexual contacts in Canada and in the country of origin, and “experience with and/or knowledge of discrimination and persecution in the country of origin.”

But the IRB stresses that each case is unique and the officer is the one who decides if the applicant’s testimony is credible — and they may take into account the credibility of the potential refugee. That appears to be the case here, where Duggan repeatedly casts aside evidence due to Nanziri’s perceived lack of credibility.

Citizenship and Immigration, commenting to Xtra on Nanziri’s case, says she was afforded the “benefit of three different immigration decisions and has filed three applications for leave and judicial review of those decisions . . .  She has exhausted all of her rights to appeal on her refugee claim.”

Those three decisions all stem from the 2005 IRB ruling that deemed her account of the events “totally and completely implausible.”

Nanziri’s case definitely presents a challenge — certain aspects of her story negatively affected her applications, as they contravene department guidelines. But activists have long been calling for more leeway in those guidelines that account for sexual minorities. The IRB has had training in place for more than a decade for dealing with queer refugees, but neither the IRB nor Citizenship and Immigration have solid guidelines or protocols for deciding on those refugees who claim persecution due to their sexuality. This isn’t surprising, as neither body recognizes sexual orientation as a persecuted group. Instead, they both lump gay and lesbian applicants together as members of a “social group,” making their claims all the more difficult.

On Aug 2, a federal judge stayed Nanziri’s deportation. He said he did not think that the refugee officer had adequately taken the best interest of Nanziri’s children into account.

“The circumstances facing these children in Uganda are dire,” the judge, Justice Barnes, wrote. “The balance of convenience clearly favours the applicant. She has been in Canada seven years. She is gainfully employed. There are no significant problems with her immigration history or with her personal conduct in Canada.”

Nanziri’s case will soon come back before a federal judge, where it will be decided whether she will have another chance to file to stay in the country under humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

With files from Katie Toth.