One way or another, “Shelley” and “Mini” were going to be together. The women left their families behind in Malaysia after the nature of their relationship was discovered: Mini’s parents had gotten physical and Shelley was running away from her father, who she knows could get violent. They soon became queer refugees in Canada.
It’s a story familiar to many gay and lesbian people in South-Asian countries, and a story familiar to many who were part of a Queer McGill, Multimundo and the Ethnoculture Committee discussion at McGill University last Tuesday night.
“That’s how we ended up in Montreal,” they told those at the discussion. “We left our families behind, our friends, our lifestyle, just so we can be together, just so we can be who we are. We just decided it was enough.”
With the help of Montreal’s queer community, they became immigrants when the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) accepted their refugee claim. They are now settled down and live in Montreal’s Gay Village.
Others aren’t so lucky. About half of the refugees trying to stay in Canada permanently get turned away after their claims denied.
Malaysian Thiyagarajan Subrammaniam, “Rajan” for short, had his claim denied by the IRB in May 2007. He applied again with the help of a lawyer in July, and failed again.
Though his persecution began in 1994-1995, the situation became untenable two years ago when his boyfriend decided to come out to his own family. In the aftermath of his boyfriend’s disclosure, the family called the police, charging Rajan with “unnatural sex acts,” a Malaysian law.
“[Certain Malaysian Muslims] arrested me many times,” said the 63-year-old. “They hit me many times, they put me in jail . . . I almost got killed. The last time they [caught] me, they said ‘if we catch you one more time,’ they will kill me or they will give me [a chemical castrating] injection.”
Over 12 to 13 years, Rajan was arrested almost 20 times and was threatened not only by the police, but also by civilians.
He took their threats seriously. His sister’s ex-husband was killed for his sexual preference. So Rajan fled. He arrived in Canada last July using a fake passport, believing that Canada offered the best chance of acceptance over Europe or Australia. Rajan is appealing the IRB decision on “humanitarian” grounds to the Canada Border Services Agency. He fears that in six months he will be deported back to Malaysia where he could face death.
Waiting to be heard
Getting permission to stay in Canada is a complicated and expensive process often coupled with the anxiety of relying on legal-aid lawyers, whose efforts vary in terms of commitment.
Roughly 2,000 queer refugees made claims seeking to enter Canada in 2004 with a success rate around 50 per cent, according to social workers, who act as guides for queer refugees. The burden of proof lies on the claimant.
Under the Immigration and Refugee Act, queer refugees are treated as part of a “particular social group” which may have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted.” They may qualify under what the IRB defines as a “convention refugee.”
According to the speakers at the discussion, the most crucial part of the refugee process is to collect as much information as possible about their home countries, which is used as evidence to prove persecution – especially by police – to convince the IRB that they are not safe back home.
“That’s not true,” countered Stéphane Malebart, IRB spokesperson. The IRB has researchers “on the ground,” and also gathers data from sources such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In some countries, homosexuality is outlawed, and bolsters the case for certain claimants. But in the case of Lebanon, one of the speakers said it only defines homosexuality as “sodomy,” while lesbians and bisexual women continue to be persecuted.
“It is very frustrating . . . when [these women] come to [Canada], where do we get the information?” said Nada, a filmmaker who worked on D’ici et d’ailleurs, a documentary that reveals the stories of nine women “of colour” within the queer community in Montreal, including Chady and Minnie’s journey. “We have nothing in the laws, we have very few examples, so it’s harder. So in court, they say ‘you don’t have any problems,'”
Claimants have to prove that they are homosexual in the first place to ensure that the claim is not a disingenuous attempt to gain entry into Canada, she said. “They want us to prove we are lesbian and homosexual? Do we need to take pictures of ourselves in the Village?” Nada believes it’s a case-by-case approach. “There is no general definition and there is no uniform way of dealing with a case.”
“We [need] a lot of facts which have to interact together to [result] in a positive decision . . . is the homosexual person living in a certain country, under certain conditions or in a certain area of the country,” said Malebart.
In the meantime, other queer refugees from Malaysia are packing up and getting ready to face persecution back home, like “AK,” whose case appeared in a recent issue of The Mirror. AK has exhausted all avenues to gain entry into Canada and was deported last Thursday. According to Rajan, who spoke to his network of friends back home, government agents beat AK upon his arrival at the airport for publicizing his case in Canada.