Canada rejects asylum seeker deported to torture in Libya

Canada rejects asylum seeker deported to torture in Libya

Adel Benhmuda, his wife Aisha, and their children — including Adam, left, and Omar — were deported to Libya in 2008 after their claim for refugee status in Canada was rejected. The family was granted that status in Malta, but say their future is in Canada.Adel Benhmuda, his wife Aisha, and their children — including Adam, left, and Omar — were deported to Libya in 2008 after their claim for refugee status in Canada was rejected. The family was granted that status in Malta, but say their future is in Canada.

BERNARD WEIL/TORONTO STAR file photo
Sandro Contenta Feature Writer

Canadian officials are washing their hands of an asylum seeker who was tortured when Canada deported him and his family to Libya, while it was still in the clutches of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Adel Benhmuda learned this week that his application to return to Canada with his family, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, was rejected by immigration officials.

“It’s a real shock, especially for the kids,” said Benhmuda, whose two youngest sons were born in Toronto. “Tears are everywhere.”

Benhmuda, his wife, Aisha, and his four sons spent eight years in Canada. They were deported in 2008 after their claim for refugee status was rejected. Benhmuda was detained on arrival in Tripoli and jailed for a total of six months on two separate occasions.

During that time, he says, prison guards regularly bound his bare feet, strung him up in the air and beat his soles with batons and electrical wires. The family then fled to the island of Malta and was granted refugee status. Last February, the United Nation’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, formally asked Canada to resettle them as refugees.

Benhmuda’s Toronto lawyer, Andrew Brouwer, said rejecting the family’s request to return is particularly outrageous given that Canada effectively deported Benhmuda to torture.

“That’s on the hands of the Canadian government,” Brouwer said. “They have blood on their hands.”

“It’s crazy,” he added. “It’s a clear-cut humanitarian and compassionate application, and the refusal is completely unsustainable. We have a family with two Canadian-born kids, they were well-established in Canada, and (Benhmuda) has offers of work here.”

The family’s hopes were rekindled when — after the Star revealed their ordeal — the NDP raised the case in the House of Commons in June. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney insisted that Canadian governments do not deport people to torture, and defended Canada’s asylum system as the fairest in the world.

Kenney added, however, that his officials would give the family’s request to return to Canada “every humanitarian consideration” possible, and do so quickly.

At the end of September, an immigration officer from the Canadian embassy in Rome interviewed the Benhmudas in their small apartment in Malta. Rejection came in a Nov. 8 letter — received by Benhmuda’s lawyer on Nov. 21.

“After consideration of your application and the supporting information provided, I have concluded that humanitarian and compassionate considerations do not justify granting you an exemption from any applicable criteria or obligation of the (Immigration and Refugee Protection) Act,” says the letter, signed by S. Finall, first secretary for immigration at the Canadian embassy in Rome.

The letter does not address the torture Benhmuda says he suffered in Libya, but notes that he now benefits “from the protection of Malta,” where he obtained asylum. It ends with the phrase: “Thank you for the interest you have shown in Canada.”

Brouwer is now appealing directly to Kenney, asking the minister to overturn the decision of his officials and to allow the Benhmudas back.

Asked if Kenney might review the decision, his spokesperson, Candice Malcolm, said: “It’ll depend, I guess, if the case is brought to his attention, and what the facts are.” She said the department would be willing to say more about the case if Benhmuda signed a form consenting to the disclosure of private information.

In a telephone interview, Benhmuda says his sons — aged 8 to 16 — were so upset by the news they were unable to go to school.

“I want to go back for the future of my kids,” says Benhmuda, 43. “Canada is the country they grew up in. It’s the culture they know. It’s the country they love.”

Particularly upsetting to Benhmuda is how Canadian authorities deported him and his family. First, they concluded it was safe to return them to Libya, a country long known for its atrocious human rights record, a country Canadian and NATO warplanes bombed to help rebels get rid of Gadhafi.

Then they refused to let them carry their own passports and case file. They gave the documents to the crew of the commercial airline, and the crew handed them to Libyan authorities on arrival in Tripoli. It was like waving a red flag.

While beating him in jail, guards would accuse Benhmuda of shaming Libya by applying for asylum in Canada. After 18 months, he bribed his way out of Libya and landed with his family in Malta in 2010 after a roundabout route. They spent the first nine months on the Mediterranean island living in a cargo container in a refugee camp.

Benhmuda has been unable to find work. His children are struggling to learn Maltese, and they sleep on mattresses on the floor in one room. Adam, the youngest, suffers from asthma, and Moawiya, 14, from muscular dystrophy. Both were under regular medical care in Canada.

The island of 400,000 is under increasing pressure from African migrants and refugees landing on its shores. It has no refugee integration policy, and racism creates “an environment of fear, tension and mistrust,” the UNHCR says.

Benhmuda first fled Libya in 2000, after being roughly interrogated “10 to 15 times” by police wanting to know the whereabouts of his younger brother, Abu Baker. The brother belonged to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an anti-Gadhafi organization that officially joined Al Qaeda in 2007 before cutting off ties two years later.

During the revolt that overthrew Gadhafi, LIFG members were represented in the rebel force’s Transitional National Council, which Canada officially recognized.

Benhmuda and his family arrived in Toronto after paying a smuggler $2,000 for a student visa to Canada. While his refugee application was being considered, he worked at two jobs, driving a truck at night and working in an optical lab by day. His wife, Aisha, volunteered at her children’s Mississauga school.

A refugee tribunal decided it did not believe Benhmuda’s story of repeated harassment and rough interrogation by Libyan police.

“I will never forget what Malta has done for us,” Benhmuda says, “but there is no future for us here. Our future is in Canada.”

M. Ali El-Ehmer

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