https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/10/25/will-a-former-refugees-trip-to-see-his-dying-father-cost-him-his-status-in-canada.html

When Medhi Ghamoshi Ramandi was finally granted asylum in Canada in 2019, one of the first things he did was leave the country.

The Iranian man wanted to see his wife and two children, whom he had not seen for six years since his escape from that country’s regime.

Aware of the safety risks of returning to his homeland, he got a refugee travel document from Canada and flew his family to Armenia, where he rented a place for three months so they could try to make up for some of their time lost.

“We had not seen each other for six years and we reunited in Armenia,” recalls Ramandi. “We did a lot of sightseeing there. We had very good memories of the first weeks there. I felt alive again.”

But then came the news of his father being diagnosed with an acute form of colon cancer.

“We didn’t think my father would last six months. There were photos of him with his stomach torn open and stuff like that,” says Ramandi. “My father was pleading, ‘Please come back so I can see you one last time.’ That’s what made me decide to go back.”

Unable to travel to his homeland with his refugee travel document, Ramandi took a chance to apply for an Iranian passport in Armenia and crossed a land border into Iran, at 2 a.m., hoping he wouldn’t be flagged.

Once inside the country, he says, he holed up in his parents’ house before sneaking into the hospital late at night and staying at his father’s bedside till the morning for fear of being spotted and reported to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

After 12 days in Iran with his dying father, the 50-year-old returned to Toronto on Sept. 23, 2019, via Armenia.

He was immediately stopped and held for an investigation by the Canada Border Services Agency.

His offence was possessing a passport from the same regime that he had run away from and “reavailing” himself to Iran.

To the Canadian authorities, that suggested he no longer required Canada’s protection and that he could be stripped of his refugee status.

“I had to go and see my father. He was dying,” said a sobbing Ramandi, whose application for permanent residence has been suspended since 2019 while officials are investigating whether to refer him to the refugee board and have his protected status ended.

It is a process known as cessation. The number of new cessation applications against individuals who have been granted asylum in Canada — many of them already permanent residents, sometimes for years — rose to 399 in 2021 from just 137 in 2013. The then-Conservative government, looking to crack down on bogus refugees, changed the law to not only go after former refugees’ protected status but also their permanent residence.

Those who return to their country of origin or simply apply for or renew their old passports, even just to visit a third country, can be pursued by Canadian border officials and lose both their refugee status and permanent residence, and ultimately face deportation.

“Technology is improving, so people’s movements are easier to track,” says immigration lawyer Mario Bellissimo. “There is a backlog that has now slowly moved through the system and there are investigations going on.

“We’re seeing now an apex of cases.”

As of the end of June, there were 572 cessation applications before the Immigration and Refugee Board, down from a backlog of 781 cases in 2020.

Under the immigration law, Canada can take away someone’s protected status if they have:

  • “Voluntarily reavailed” themselves of the protection of their country of nationality;
  • Reacquired their nationality, as in obtaining or renewing a passport from the country of persecution;
  • “Re-established” in that country; or
  • When the reasons for which the person sought refugee protection no longer exist.

Lawyer Justin Jian-Yi Toh said investigations in cessation proceedings are often triggered when individuals are flagged by border agents upon returning from their country of origin or when they are found to have travelled back from a third country with a passport issued from the state they fled.

Many are also caught when they are asked to provide detailed travel records to fulfil the physical residence requirement for the renewal of their residence cards or citizenship applications.

“Of course, for the average person, they don’t think about all that stuff when they get a passport,” said Toh. “They think, ‘I need a passport to travel. A passport is a travelling licence.’ That’s it.”

In the eyes of Canadian officials, when that happens, it means the refugee traveller has restored relations with their country of origin and no longer needs Canada’s protection.

“Then you see a situation where, for example, people get refugee status in Canada,” said Toh, “but then their parents get very sick and they say to themselves, ‘I’m in danger in this country, but this is my mom, and this is my dad. Maybe I can pop in and see them one last time without people noticing. I’m there and then get out quickly.”

How a court ruling could change things

The refugee board has allowed the majority of the cessation requests referred to it by the border agency, with an acceptance rate above 80 per cent. In 2020, it reached an all-time high, at 95 per cent.

But both Bellissimo and Toh hope that the rising trend will be blunted by a Federal Court of Appeal decision earlier this year that found each cessation proceeding should be “fact-dependent” and should not be applied in “a mechanistic or rote manner.”

The case, represented by the two lawyers, involved Maria Camila Galindo Camayo, who came to Canada for asylum with her mother and brothers from Colombia when she was 12 and who was granted protection in Canada in 2010 as a minor dependent.

After she became a permanent resident in 2012, she was found to have obtained and renewed her Colombian passport, and visited her homeland five times as a teen and adult to visit and care for her father, who suffers from mental illness and recurrent cancer, and to attend a humanitarian mission to aid children in poverty. She also used the passport to travel to Cuba, the United States and Mexico.

When in Colombia, concerned for her own safety, she hired professional armed guards, travelled in multiple cars, taking different routes, and remained inside family members’ homes as much as possible, she told the refugee board.

In 2017, border agents referred Camayo to the refugee board, which took away her protected status and permanent residence in 2019, despite her arguments that she was unaware of the cessation laws and their consequences.

Although on paper Camayo met the three key elements in assessing someone’s return to a country of persecution — voluntary, intentional and actual physical visit — the Federal Court overruled the refugee board decision, saying that the conclusion was unreasonable.

In dismissing the government’s appeal, the Federal Court of Appeal said the test for cessation should not be applied in “a mechanistic or rote manner” and it provided detailed guidance to assist the refugee board in assessing individual nuances leading to someone reavailing themselves to the country that they once feared.

“The focus throughout the analysis should be on whether the refugee’s conduct — and the inferences that can be drawn from it — can reliably indicate that the refugee intended to waive the protection of the country of asylum,” the appeal court said in sending the case back to the refugee board for redetermination.

‘My father was dying of cancer’

Ramandi said no one ever advised him not to use an Iranian passport or about the potential consequences. He said he tried to keep a low profile when sneaking back into Iran because he worried about his safety. The visit to Tehran wasn’t even part of his plan as he only learned about his father’s hospitalization toward the end of his three-month trip in Armenia.

“My father was dying of cancer. … The immigration issue didn’t even cross my mind,” said Ramandi, a Protestant Christian, who fled religious persecution in Iran and arrived in Canada in 2013 with the help of smugglers.

Still distraught from leaving his father and family behind, he said he was terrified when he was stopped by the border agents at Toronto’s Pearson airport.

“I told them about seeing my family in Armenia and about my father in Iran. I told them everything about the trip,” Ramandi, a baker, said through an interpreter. “I had no idea about the immigration implications.”

His father died a few months after his visit and Ramandi has not travelled or seen his wife, son, 18, and daughter, 14, while his permanent residence application is on hold.

“I came here when I was 41 and I’m now 50. It’s been almost 10 years and I’ve only been able to spend three months with my family in Armenia,” said Ramandi. “It’s so hard. I don’t have any direction for my life anymore.”

Immigration lawyer Richard Wazana said those with “ceased” status are also barred from appeals and risk assessments before removals for a year and are only eligible for humanitarian considerations if there are children involved and their interests are affected, or if there’s a serious mental or medical health issue.

The law, he said, has caused a lot of misery for these former refugees, few understanding that their protected status can be taken away even after they become permanent residents.

“Many people don’t apply for citizenship because they’re under the mistaken impression that permanent residency is, as it sounds, permanent. Unfortunately, it’s far from it,” he said. “Really, no one is safe until they obtain citizenship.”

Wazana has a client who fled political persecution in Libya and returned to see family only after the authoritarian regime of Moammar Gadhafi fell and it was safe for him to visit. Even though Canada has deferred all removals to Libya due to the volatile political situation there, the border agency pursued cessation of the man’s permanent resident status.

“Even using that passport from your home country to travel to a third country could potentially lead to a cessation application,” said Wazana. “My advice is just to forget about that passport, put it away and never use it again.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

Sima Shakeri is a Toronto-based digital producer for the Star. Reach her via email: sshakeri@thestar.ca