Palestinians who have claimed refugee status in Canada are stateless refugees whose parents and grandparents were expelled from their homes in Palestine in 1948 and who, for the past 56 years, have been living in extremely difficult conditions in refugee camps. These stateless Palestinian refugees fled the continued collective and individual persecution they faced, and sought the protection of Canada, in hopes of building a secure future. The Palestinian refugees in Canada are from the refugee camps in Lebanon and from the Occupied Territories. Although the refugee claimants consist of single men and women, as well as families, the great majority are young men ranging between the ages of 20-35 years of age.
Palestinians from the refugee camps in Lebanon
The majority of the Palestinian refugee claimants fled from different refugee camps in Lebanon. Most of them are from Ein El-Hilweh refugee camp in Saidon (South of Lebanon). Others came from Bourj Al-Barajneh, Shatila, Bourj Al-Shamali, Rashidiyeh, El-Bass, Baddawi and Nahr-el-Bared refugee camps.
Most of the Palestinians coming from Lebanon carry refugee travel documents issued by the Lebanese government. These documents are often stripped from them indiscriminately and unconditionally by the Lebanese government, thereby restricting their freedom of travel.
Palestinians from the Occupied Territories
Some of the Palestinian refugees have fled from the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. They have escaped from the atrocities committed daily by the Israeli army against them collectively and individually. The majority are from refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, while others come from cities such as Hebron and Nablus.
Most of the Palestinians coming from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip carry travel documents issued by the Palestinian Authority under strict inspection of the Israelis who control all border crossings into the Occupied Territories.
How many Palestinians have claimed refugee status in Canada?
Official statistics of Palestinian refugee claimants in 2002-2003
In 2002-2003, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) received a total of 38,900 refugee claims.Of these, 112 were claims filed by Palestinians from the Occupied Territories (West Bank & Gaza Strip).
Unfortunately, it is not possible to get definite statistics on the total number of Palestinian refugee claimants in Canada due to the fact that official statistics are classified by country. Palestinian refugee claimants are stateless refugees and therefore hold Palestinian refugee travel documents issued by their host country. As such, Palestinian refugee claimants from Lebanon are classified as refugees coming from Lebanon alongside Lebanese nationals who claim refugee status in Canada.
In order to get a more accurate number of Palestinian refugee claimants coming from the refugee camps in Lebanon, one would have to re-open all files from Lebanon and separate Palestinian refugees from Lebanese nationals. On the 17th of April 2003, Mr. Simon Perusse, regional director of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in Montreal, informed the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees that this was not possible.
List of Palestinian refugee claimants facing deportation in 2004
The following numbers are made up of refugee claimants in direct and regular contact with the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees and are not official figures. The figure is surely higher than the one provided since the Coalition is mainly in contact with the Palestinian refugee claimants residing in Montreal and only a small number of claimants who are residing in other Canadian cities. The figure will be updated as Palestinian refugee claimants in other cities self-organize with the support of local organizations.
As of February 2004, the figures of the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees show that:
There are over 135 Palestinian refugee claimants, the great majority of them residing in the Montreal region. Approximately 90% of the refugee claimants are from the refugee camps of Lebanon.
Approximately 10% of the claimants are from the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Of the over 135 Palestinian refugee claimants:
· 66 have been accepted as “Convention refugees” by the Refugee Protection Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board;
· At least 40 are currently facing deportation, of whom 9 have overstayed their removal orders and are living underground;
· At least 14 were deported from Canada in 2003-2004, and;
· At least 15 are awaiting their respective hearings at the Refugee Protection Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board.
How did the Palestinian refugee claimants arrive in Canada?
Due to the difficulty stemming from geographical distance and boundaries, as well as the near impossibility for Palestinians to receive Canadian visas, it is extremely difficult for them to reach Canada and claim refugee status.
Most Palestinian refugees from Lebanon came in to Canada via the United States
The majority of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon went to the United States on student visas. After a few weeks, these same refugees came to Canada where they then applied for refugee status.
In 2000-2001, the United States embassy in Beirut issued Student Visas to some Palestinian refugees receiving doctored acceptances from an American University in Texas. Once uncovered and due to the strict measures imposed on visa requirements after the events of September 11th 2001, this channel was completely closed. It was during this short period that the great majority of the Palestinian refugees currently facing deportation were able to seek refuge in Canada.
Since then, it has become increasingly rare for Palestinian refugees from Lebanon to come into North America, and more specifically Canada. The Palestinian refugees came to Canada in hopes of finding a more humane refugee determination system affording them the protection they sought.
Other Palestinian refugees arrived directly to Canada
A smaller number of Palestinian refugees from the Occupied Territories and from Lebanon arrived in to Canada on student visas and to a much lesser extent on visitor visas in order to claim refugee status. This means of entering into Canada has become significantly more difficult due to the worsening conditions in the Occupied Territories: it is extremely difficult for Palestinians living under military occupation to travel to Canadian immigration offices. Moreover, Palestinians living under occupation or in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon rarely meet the necessary visa requirements.
An even smaller number of Palestinian refugees desperately fled the persecution they faced and entered Canada with false documentation in the hopes of claiming refugee status.
Life in Canada for Palestinian refugee claimants
Of the many painful challenges Palestinian refugees face in this country, the main one is that of having their very claim for refugee status heard and accepted. This lengthy process greatly affects their stay in Canada in a myriad of ways, both negative and positive. Below, we look to the dynamics specific to the Palestinian refugees, and the ways in which their daily lives have been altered, in order to integrate within Canadian and Quebecois society.
The mother tongue of all Palestinian refugees is Arabic. Many of the Palestinian refugees in Canada arrived with a working knowledge of the English language. Since then, they continue to work intensively in an effort to ameliorate their English language skills, in order that they may reach a good level of fluency. Many of them have already attained such a fluency in comprehension, reading, and writing.
Further, a smaller group of the Palestinian refugees possess an excellent knowledge of the French language. Many are taking the free French classes offered by the Quebec Government, substantially improving their knowledge of the French language.
Refugees have to obtain a Student Authorization Permit, which is rarely issued, in order to be allowed to study in Canada during the refugee determination process. Furthermore, coming to Canada with little financial assets or assistance, many of the refugee claimants are incapable of affording the rising cost of post-secondary education, and thus financially prohibited from attending either college or university. Student Financial Aid is only accessible after they have obtained Permanent Resident status.
Incapable of affording college or university tuition during the refugee determination process, many of the Palestinian refugee claimants have actively sought employment opportunities; most of the time receiving minimum wage.
Most Palestinians have proved to be motivated in their work, actively contributing to their new country and saving for the time they can pursue higher education. Being young and ambitious, they have unlimited potential to contribute to the greater Canadian picture, if given the opportunity.
Most of the refugees received work permits for the duration of the refugee determination process. Eager to work, many of the refugees faced setbacks in securing employment. Setting aside the current economic and political climate of Canada, many factors have affected this situation. Their ‘non-status’ results in them having a Social Insurance Number beginning with 900, making it impossible to find long term work. The results are short-term, low-wage, menial jobs. Moreover, the reluctance of fellow Canadians to recognize their educational and professional credentials has played a significant role in contributing to this glass ceiling. Nevertheless, the Palestinian refugees have attempted to secure jobs, even those for which they are over-qualified.
Additionally, many of the Palestinian refugees have degrees that are recognized in Canada by the proper accreditation board. While most of the refugees are already well established and entirely self-sufficient in Canada, if they were to receive a permanent social insurance number they would be able to secure employment in their professional field.
Although refugees experience some initial financial difficulties, many of the barriers they face fall away once their claims for refugee status is approved. Essentially, the Palestinian refugees are motivated, dedicated, educated, and hard-working individuals interested in continuing both their education and/or professional careers here in Canada. They have come to Canada for refuge, as this is a safe country where they can improve their living environment and attain equal rights. They have and will use every opportunity available to reach their intended goal of success and security.
Palestinian refugees do not face any major problems acclimatizing to Canadian and Quebecois society. Like any person in unfamiliar surroundings, they encounter normal and almost routine challenges of adapting to a different living environment. Fleeing from violence and persecution, and leaving behind loved ones is certainly a struggle, yet the Palestinian refugees have found support from the already large numbers of Canadian Arabs in Montreal, who aid in the maintenance of the community’s social fabric.
However, it is interesting to note that the refugees whose claims have not yet been studied or accepted endure a situation that is best described by the following excerpt from an article by Hamdi Mohammed:
You start trying to make a new life and "get documented." You go through the immigration process, still thinking that things should be just fine. Once you get your papers, you will start making a life for yourself and your family. You and your wife will get jobs in your professions, your children will go to school, you will be settled […]
Unfortunately, things are not so simple, and many of the refugee claimants are relegated to the defining characteristic of ‘Case Number’, rather than individual human beings. The frustration of this near obliteration of identity is best captured by Mohammed when he explains that:
Besides, I am a professional and have many skills that can contribute to the country. But you find out that those skills are worth nothing here. Your social and historical past is obliterated. You are now a "refugee." That is all you are allowed to be. You are lumped in with people with whom you rarely have anything in common. You are homogenized. You find that everywhere you go people analyze you through the problems you are facing, not who you really are.