Q&A:The journey of an ‘irregular’ refugee claimant to Canada

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‘Mary” is a mother of three and a refugee claimant currently living in Toronto. Originally from Guinea, she went to the United States with her mother as a teenager, but never gained legal status there. After some years, she paid a smuggler to bring her and her children to Canada, to escape an abusive partner. She is currently awaiting a refugee hearing. She recently spoke with Sonal Marwah and Michelle Ball.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 3 Autumn 2017 by Sonal Marwah and Michelle Ball

Sonal Marwah/Michelle Ball: Where are you and your children from?

Mary: We have come to Canada from Columbus, Ohio and we are originally from Guinea. I moved to the United States when I was 14 years old with my mom and she raised me.

SM/MB: Why did you leave your home in Guinea?

M: When I was eight years old, I was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) without my mother’s knowledge or permission, and I didn’t have a choice either. One day, my grandmother sent my mother to do some chores. When my mother was gone, my grandmother had the FGM done to me. Despite so many years, till this date, it’s something that still plays on my mind. When my mother came back and it was done, she was angry and disappointed in herself that she could not save me from this, as she went through it and did not want this for me. She could not go to the police as they would not help her.

When I turned 14 years, our family then wanted me to get married and that’s when my mother decided we had to escape, as she would not be able to save me in Guinea. She found a way for us to reach the United States.

SM/MB: Tell us about your life in the United States.

M: My mother did not have any legal status when she arrived in the U.S. She was uneducated and did what she could do to support us. She remained as an undocumented person in the States as she did not have anyone to guide her through the immigration process and show her the proper channels to seek refugee status. I was also only 14 years old at that time and did not know anything about immigration or what ‘status’ was or its importance.

When I grew up, I learned a bit about the immigration process. In my 20s I tried to file for asylum. The person at the immigration office asked me why I had not filed for asylum all these years. I replied I was young and did not know anything about the U.S. refugee system, but once I found out what I needed to do to file for asylum in the U.S., I did it, but it was too late. I had missed the one-year-bar, which requires asylum-seekers to apply for asylum within one year of entry to the United States.

In high school, I met the father of my children. In the beginning, everything was fine. As time went by, he started to control all my actions, the way I dressed, where I went out and when, and started to become abusive and hit me. In 2010, I became pregnant. I could not leave my partner because he threatened me that if I called the police, they would simply deport me back to Guinea as I had no legal status in the U.S. I stayed with him because I had to raise my child.

I thought of returning home to Guinea, but I quickly learned that that was not an option. My family back home threatened to kill me as I had had children out of wedlock. As a Muslim girl, this was unacceptable.

So in many ways, I felt very trapped. In 2015, I lost my mother and this was difficult for me. Right after this I found out I was pregnant again.

SM/MB: What made you decide to leave the United States and come to Canada?

M: My chances of getting refugee status in the U.S. were becoming increasingly difficult. As the domestic abuse became worse, I had to leave for my safety and that of my children. An aunt and I brainstormed what options I had to find safety. Given that any refugee claim in the U.S. was looking very difficult, we decided on trying for Canada, as it was within driving range and so I could take my children with me. But I didn’t know how we were going to cross the border, since I could not apply for asylum in Canada because of the existing STCA [Safe Third Country Agreement].

SM/MB: Tell us about your journey from the U.S. to Canada. What was your biggest concern when you decided to make the irregular crossing into Canada?

M: I was very scared and didn’t know if I wanted to put myself and my children in a situation where we were crossing the border illegally. What if we got caught? But looking at my situation, I didn’t have any options. My aunt did some research and found out about human smugglers, who drive people across the border for some money. So my aunt met with this person and planned the journey. From the time that we decided I would come to Canada with my children to the time I left, it took six months. Because I had to save up enough money to pay the smuggler.

The day I was leaving I almost did not go ahead with the plan. I was thinking: How will I feed my kids once in Canada since I will not be working. At least I had a job in the U.S., even though I didn’t have status. And what if I get caught? Then my fears of staying in the U.S. will actually come true because I would be handed back to the U.S. immigration and will be deported. What would happen to my children? Who will then take care of them?

I hid in the trunk of the car and the kids were sitting in the back. I came in March this year and it was so cold, even though there was heating in the car. I was scared about the smuggler being in the car with my children as I did not know this person and wondered if he would actually drive me and my children across the border as promised. All I could do was hope for the best outcome and pray because all I wanted was for my children and me to be safe.

My biggest concern while making this journey was the safety of my children. I didn’t want anything bad happening to them because I won’t be able to live with that because I have put them in that situation.

I managed to get into Canada safely with my children.

The STCA makes it very difficult for people to ask for help. I could not go to the Canada border and say I am fleeing domestic abuse, because I did not have status in the U.S. I risked being sent back to the U.S. and then deported to my country, where I will be killed.

SM/MB: Did you know about the STCA when you decided to come to Canada?

M: All I knew was that I could not go to the border legally and ask for help. I didn’t know any details about the Agreement’s implications or why it’s been put in place.

SM/MB: What effect has the STCA had on your ability to stay in Canada?

M: I did not have any legal status when I came to Canada. I had to first submit my refugee claim here before my life could really start. For example, for my children to be able to go school, I had to have submitted my refugee claim.

All the while, at the back of mind was: Are they going to use the fact that I was in the U.S. first? What will that mean in terms of Canada granting me refugee status?

SM/MB: If you could tell Canadians one thing about the impact of the STCA on your family, what would you want them to know?

M: I would tell them to advocate for the many women and children that are in a similar situation to mine and that need help, but cannot access proper assistance because of the regulations of the U.S. refugee system.

In the case of the STCA, it puts you into a very difficult position where you have no choice. You put yourself in harm’s way because you are in the hope of finding something better, something safer. If the STCA did not exist, a person could come to the border and say, “I need help.” And if they let you in, at least you can take the proper channels to claim asylum.

I wish governments could make is easier for people to be able to ask for help in a proper and safe way, and not feel that they have to do things illegally. It would be good for the government as they would know who is coming into their country and for what purpose.

Coming in through the irregular channels is very difficult and even once we got here, there were many unknowns about a new place, how to navigate the immigration process, where to live, access to basic resources.

SM/MB: What are your hopes for you and your children in Canada?

M: My hope is that the Canadian immigration system does not focus so much on how I got here, but recognizes what I am running from and why. I only hope they will give me a safe home for my children and me.

Ultimately it is your life and you have to find a way to make it better for you and, if you have children, for them, too. I used to look at others who would cross illegally and think they are crazy to take so many risks. But when you are in that situation of desperation and there is no other way, you do whatever you have to do to save yourself.

I have no regrets of the way I entered Canada, because it was for my safety and for the safety of my children. It was the only chance I had and I took it.

Michelle Ball has a Master’s degree in International Migration and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. She works in the Violence Against Women sector in Toronto, and also assists groups engaged in private refugee sponsorship.

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