A decision by Canadian officials to reject the asylum claim of a young Rohingya couple exposes what they warn could become systemic issues for Rohingya people fleeing violence in Myanmar and seeking protection in Canada.
Earlier this year, the Immigration and Refugee Board denied the claim of a 35-year-old man, who evaded authorities in Myanmar for years to obtain multiple fake I.D.s, including a forged passport, and relied on human smugglers to get out of the country alive. He eventually made his way to Canada, with his 26-year-old wife.
In its decision, the Refugee Protection Division (R.P.D.) of the I.R.B. cited their forged documents as evidence of dishonesty. And it said it could not verify the couple’s Rohingya ethnicity because they were unable to find a Rohingya translator, and had to rely on an Urdu speaker instead.
The couple is now appealing the decision and allege that the R.P.D. panel’s errors, if repeated, amount to systemic hurdles for Rohingya claimants seeking asylum in Canada. They have asked only to be identified by their initials out of safety concerns.
“There’s a clear pattern of misunderstanding of both my clients’ stories and claims,” says Washim Ahmed, lawyer for the couple in their appeal. “In this case, there also seems to be a real lack of awareness of the plight of the Rohingya, and what they have to do to survive.”
In recent years, waves of Rohingya have been forcefully displaced from Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live, as Myanmar’s security forces carried out campaigns of mass killing, arson, and rape against them. Since August alone, more than 600,000 people have fled.
Multiple governments around the world have recognized Myanmar’s violent persecution of the Rohingya as a “genocide,” including Canada — a declaration that came in September, shortly after the I.R.B. decision in this case.
“It’s so frustrating,” M.S., the husband, told VICE News in an interview. “It’s like they have no idea what’s happening to us at all.”
Escape from Myanmar
After finishing a degree in geology at the University of Sittwe, in Myanmar, in 2005, M.S. waited at his home in the town of Maungdaw for an invitation to his graduation ceremony.
Rohingya aren’t allowed to travel between cities without special permission, known as Form 4. But in order to get it, he needed to present a formal invitation to his convocation, and that, he says, never came.
Months passed before he says he found out that no Rohingya students appeared on the university’s list of graduates. He decided to go to the nearest police station with his father to complain.
“They told us to go away and one of the officer started yelling at me. I told him to stop and he punched me in the face. My nose was broken and blood was everywhere.”
“If they caught me, I was going to get beaten up, disappeared, or worse.”
Rebuffed, M.S. decided to turn to one of his old university professors for help.
“She told me to come to Sittwe, but she could only get me a ‘temporary degree’ to show that I did the work,” he says. “It was better than nothing.” M.S. paid a smuggler to sneak him into Sittwe without proper Form 4 permission.
“I was so nervous,” he says. “If they caught me, I was going to get beaten up, disappeared, or worse.” The professor advised M.S. to get home before the authorities discovered he’d left town illegally.
“But it was too late, the police already visited my parent’s house,” he says. “My father just lied and said that he didn’t know where I was. They even arrested two of my friends.”
M.S. was soon labelled a “runaway,” which essentially made him a fugitive from Myanmarese authorities. He decided to leave immediately for Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, where he’d live under a fake identity (as a fugitive, essentially) before making his way out of the country.
“It took me a few days to get to Yangon, and I paid several smugglers to get me there,” M.S. says. “I paid for a fake I.D. and changed my name once I got there. I wanted to get a fake passport too so I could leave for Dubai, where I have family.”
He says it took him three years in Yangon to obtain a forged passport. He finally boarded a plane in 2009 to Dubai, where he’d eventually get married and spend the next seven years.
Uncertainty and rejection
Dubai offered some stability. He says he found work as a waiter, and met Y.B., who became his wife. As long as he had a job, he could renew his visa and stay.
After a company-sponsored vacation to Singapore and Malaysia in 2016, M.S. says he and his wife came back to Dubai to discover that he had been laid off.
Now the two were at risk of deportation back to Myanmar, where security forces had commenced a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine.
“But we were grateful and just wanted to be safe.”
“By that time, the government basically saw all Rohingya as outsiders with absolutely no history in Burma,” Y.B. says. “They said Rohingya are all just illegals from Bangladesh.” The couple immediately arranged a Saudi Airlines flight to Toronto, Canada, where they landed in Dec 2016 and filed a claim for refugee protection a month later.
“It was such a strange country to us at first, it was incredibly cold and we didn’t know anyone at all,” Y.B. says. “But we were grateful and just wanted to be safe.”
The couple’s first hearing with the R.P.D. in downtown Toronto was scheduled for March 2017. Their hopes were high, but what ensued were months of delays.
“They adjourned our hearing three times,” M.S. says. “Each time because they couldn’t find a Rohingya interpreter.” This dragged on until the Immigration and Refugee Board sent the couple a letter saying that they simply couldn’t find anyone who spoke the Rohingya language. The two were forced to settle for an Urdu translator instead.
Finally, on March 19th, 2018, the two headed yet again to downtown Toronto, this time for a day-long hearing with the R.F.D. M.S. had just consented to a request by the division to do a background check, which he expected would confirm his stateless status.
“But during the hearing, all of a sudden, they also mentioned that they were checking my wife’s status, even though they never asked for her consent,” M.S. says. “They wanted to check her status with regards to her Bangladeshi passport.”
This was a big problem since checking Y.B.’s status with the Bangladeshi embassy might alert them to the fact that she isn’t actually a citizen there. Y.B.’s Bangladeshi passport was obtained through her father, who used a fake Bangladeshi passport in 1983 to enter Dubai while escaping increasingly anti-Rohingya conditions in Myanmar.
“If the Bangladeshis find out that my father has been using a fake passport, then they might tell the authorities in the U.A.E.,” Y.B. says. “That can mean deportation from Dubai back to Myanmar.”
“The judge replied by saying, ‘okay, but it’s going to affect your case,’” M.S. says. “Why didn’t they ever tell us this beforehand?”
The two attended one more hearing in the summer before receiving an email indicating that they’d been rejected.
A decision in Canada
In a five-and-a-half page decision signed, R. Kotovych, the R.P.D. panel detailed the reasons behind not recognizing M.S. and Y.B. as conventional refugees “in need of protection.”
The decision refers primarily to M.S.’s failure to “reliably establish his identity,” along with his apparent “willingness and ability to misrepresent himself.”
Although the couple had their Rohingya lineage and ethnicity verified through two Rohingya non-profits in Canada that sent personnel to interview their family members in Myanmar — documentation they submitted in their asylum claim — the panel expresses doubt they are Rohingya.
It points to M.S.’s “Burmese passport” as evidence that he’s not actually a stateless person, despite the fact that M.S. insists that the document is a forgery.
The decision cited a “willingness and ability to misrepresent himself.”
“I sent them that passport and told them it’s fake,” he says. “The printing on the pages is almost all drawn on, it’s not real.” M.S. admits though that a settlement agency (along with their old lawyer) made a mistake in their initial claim, stating that M.S. has Myanmarese citizenship, which is not true since Rohingya aren't recognized as citizens in that country. M.S. says that he’s long corrected this clerical error.
The decision then cites his multiple fake I.D.s as evidence against his ability to establish his true identity. M.S. says these I.D.s were obtained out of necessity for him to survive as a Rohingya in Yangon.
He also presented a real I.D. along with his fake ones — a typical “identity card” issued by the Myanmar government to all Rohingya. The R.P.D. didn’t find this document trustworthy due to what they point out as M.S.’s ability to obtain forgeries. As it happens, in another sweeping anti-Rohingya law, the Myanmar government had rendered Rohingya identity cards as illegitimate in 2015.
“Establishing identity is usually at the core of determining an applicant’s status, but for refugees, it can be quite hard because they often have no official papers,” says Washim Ahmed, the couple’s lawyer.
“That means other means have to be used to establish who they are — like family history of linguistic clues — and officials have to have some idea of the context that refugees are fleeing. It doesn’t help that the board couldn’t find my clients a Rohingya translator in this case and seem to display a lack of understanding of their people’s overall plight.”
The Immigration and Refugee Board says in an email to VICE News that though they never comment on specific cases, they “currently have Rohingya interpreters available.”
“Faithful interpretation of dialogue during IRB proceedings is a matter of natural justice, and the Board would not hold a hearing without confirmation that a person subject to our proceedings understands the interpreter contracted for the proceeding and the language of interpretation,” they say.
“Establishing identity is usually at the core of determining an applicant’s status, but for refugees, it can be quite hard.”
The decision also refers the couple’s company-sponsored trip to South East Asia in 2016. It notes that such a trip implies the couple could travel freely and don’t need to stay in Canada. But M.S. points out that he was laid off after the trip and that none of the countries he visited offer protective asylum anyway.
Finally, the decision cites M.S.’s three-year stay in Yangon as evidence against his claim that he, a Rohingya, was and will continue to be persecuted in Myanmar.
“I lived under a fake name with fake I.D.s and I would’ve been arrested if caught, just for leaving my town,” M.S. says. “The decision doesn’t even mention how the Myanmar police abused me at the police station.”
Y.B. was denied on similar grounds, particularly due to her unwillingness to consent to a background check of her and her father’s “Bangladeshi” status for fear that the information won’t be kept confidential.
“I do not find this explanation reasonable,” the decision says. Instead, it cites her Bangladeshi passport as evidence that she’s not actually stateless.
The couple now await the decision for their appeal.
Cover image: In this Jan. 24, 2018, file photo, a Rohingya refugee boy who was staying in no-man's land at Bandarban between Myanmar and Bangladesh border, clings to his father after arriving at Balukhali refugee camp 50 kilometers (32 miles) from, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. More than 680,000 Rohingya Muslims are now living in sprawling and squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh. Photo by Manish Swarup/AP