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Immigration tries to split same-sex spouses

Gay Colombian goes underground rather than return home

A gay Colombian man ordered to leave Canada says he’s been forced into hiding because the government is not applying its new immigration policy to his case.

“I’m scared to return to my country,” says Juan Camacho, 32. “It’s disgusting. The situation there for gay men is disgusting.”

Camacho and his Canadian partner, Einar Maartman, made headlines in Colombia after a constitutional court ruling gave Maartman the right to reside in Colombia as Camacho’s same-sex partner. But victory was fleeting; the couple say they quickly became the target of repeated assassination attempts.

Maartman, a social worker from British Columbia, left Colombia for a job offer in Toronto in January 2004 and began the sponsorship process to allow Camacho to join him. But when Camacho was the target of a drive-by shooting for a second time, he fled to Canada and applied for residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Last month, a Citizenship And Immigration Canada official rejected his claim, citing Colombia’s antidiscrimination laws.

“What the officials don’t understand is to be called homosexual, to say that publicly in a newspaper, is a death sentence,” says Maartman, 40. “[The immigration commission ruling] is lacking any cultural context whatsoever.”

Although Camacho’s refugee claim was rejected, the couple believed that he would be able stay in Canada pending the outcome of his separate immigration application as Maartman’s spouse. In February federal Immigration Minister Joe Volpe announced that relatives and spouses of Canadian citizens would be allowed to stay in the country pending the outcome of their sponsorship applications.

But even though Maartman began the sponsorship process in March, Camacho received a deportation order for May 3.

“It was made quite clear in our announcement that those that are in the system for removal will not be covered by this policy,” says Phyllis Smith, the minister’s spokesperson in Toronto.

Warren Ali, the minister’s special assistant, has verbally committed to reviewing the case but the couple has yet to hear back. Several human rights organizations have rallied around the couple, including the International Gay And Lesbian Rights Commission.

Camacho’s lawyer, Waikwa Wanyoike, has filed an application to federal court to review the decision. “This is clearly a disregard of the ministerial policy,” he says. “Either there’s a miscommunication or someone has decided to intentionally flout the rules.”

Maartmen and Camacho met on Colombia’s San Andres island in 2001. Maartman was reading Farley Mowat’s Whale For The Killing on a gay beach when Camacho walked by and smiled. Two years later, he moved to Colombia on an investment visa with the intention of opening a restaurant on the island, where Camacho ran his family’s bottled water business.

The couple drew raised eyebrows in the small community and later made headlines when Maartman applied for a visa as Camacho’s same-sex partner. In spite the blatant homophobia they say the encountered from all levels of bureaucracy, they took their claim to Colombia’s constitutional court and won. Ironically, this court decision was presented as evidence of Colombia’s positive human rights record in Camacho’s Canadian refugee claim.

When the media jumped on the story, drive-by gunmen and masked assailants repeatedly attacked the couple. “My father told me, ‘This is happening to you because you are gay, you’re looking for trouble,'” Camacho says. “I’m not looking for this trouble, I’m just looking for my rights.”

In one instance, two masked intruders surprised the couple in their apartment in October 2003. “The man put a gun to my head and the woman pulled a knife,” Camacho says. “And he said ‘Don’t move or I’ll kill you.'”

“He was so close to me, the gun was touching my forehead,” Maartman remembers. “I genuflected. I’m not Catholic but I didn’t know what else to do. Then he sent the woman out and Juan turned to me and said, ‘He’s going to kill you now.'”

Camacho says he ripped off his assailant’s mask and recognized the man as a local government official. The man said he was familiar with Maartman’s daily routine and would kill him if he didn’t drop the case. Camacho eventually paid him the equivalent of $2,000US to leave them alone.

When they called the police to report the incident, they say that officers listened to their story but did nothing. “A detective told me that if I want protection I should buy a gun or hire vigilantes,” Maartman says.

Colombia has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world – barring discrimination based on race, disability, religion and sex. But the social reality is very different.

“Colombia is a country of smoke and mirrors,” says Bill Fairbairn, a project officer at York University’s Centre For Research On Latin America And The Caribbean. “[Canadian Immigration] were blinded by the trappings of a democracy. But behind that you’ve got a country with the worst human rights record in the Americas.”

Fairbairn cites statistics from nongovernmental organizations in Colombia which report that death squads and paramilitary groups kill 15 to 17 people daily in so-called “social-cleansing” campaigns against street children, prostitutes, homosexuals and trans people.

Last year, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights identified homosexuals in Colombia among “communities at risk.”