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‘I’m writing articles, and I’m being tried as a terrorist,’ exiled writers in Canada pushing feds for quicker refugee processing of families

By Kristen Shane      

A Turkish journalist’s wife and three kids are moving from place to place in Turkey for their safety. It should be easier to bring people like them to Canada, says PEN Canada.

Marina Nemat—an author, former political prisoner in Iran, and chair of PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile Committee—says she'd like PEN to work with the federal government to quickly identify and process threatened journalists and their families for resettlement. The Hill Times photograph by Chelsea Nash
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A group that advocates for threatened writers who’ve sought asylum in Canada says the federal government should expedite the process for bringing their family members, who are still in danger abroad, to join them in Canada.

Members of PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile Committee brought this message to immigration and foreign ministry officials they met with last month in Ottawa.

Committee chair Marina Nemat, an award-winning author of the bestselling book Prisoner of Tehran, who was tortured during two years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, and about a dozen writers who have sought refuge in Canada from their  governments spoke to Canadian authorities on March 24.

About 80 writers and their supporters are involved in the Writers in Exile Committee, which meets about every month in Toronto to connect newcomers with work opportunities and get them started in Canada, and also advocates for them at refugee hearings. The exiled writers come from countries including Eritrea, Syria, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

Turkish reporter’s family in hiding

One of the writers in Ottawa last month was Ahmet Yukselen, a veteran Turkish journalist who reported stories critical of his government for Zaman, Turkey’s most widely circulated newspaper.

The government seized the newspaper in March 2016 and put it under new management, which he said fired him. Before the shakeup, the paper had been associated with a movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, an ally-turned-adversary of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan living in the United States. The Turkish government says his group is a terrorist organization and has blamed it for orchestrating a military coup attempt last July. Mr. Gulen denied any involvement.

After the coup attempt and subsequent state of emergency, Mr. Yukselen left the country, thinking the government would start arresting journalists.

By December 2016, 81 journalists were in jail in Turkey in relation to their work, accounting for nearly a third of the total number of reporters jailed worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Turkish government officials have said jailed journalists were not there because of their profession but for criminal and terrorist offences.

Soon after leaving, Mr. Yukselen said, the Turkish police raided his home, but he had already moved his family to another city. His wife and three kids are still in hiding in Turkey, changing locations often to avoid being caught by authorities.

Meanwhile, he made his way to the U.S., and after being denied a visa to Canada he crossed illegally last October by using Google Maps to find a place near Hemmingford, Que., where he could walk across from upstate New York. He then made his way undetected by security authorities to Toronto, where he’s now living.

The most important factor that led him to leave the seemingly safe U.S. for Canada, he said, was that the U.S. and Turkey have an extradition treaty, but Canada and Turkey don’t. That treaty, he figured, could have made it easier for him to be shipped back to Turkey, where he faces more than a dozen years in jail, as he was charged there with being a member of a terrorist organization, Mr. Gulen’s group.

“I’m writing articles, and I’m being tried as a terrorist,” he said while in Ottawa. “[It’s] unbelievable. A strange situation.”

Canadian authorities recently accepted his asylum claim. That only took a few months, but with a state of emergency in Turkey not yet lifted, he said he doesn’t want to take any chances with his family still there.

“The procedure is very easy, convenient in Canada. But we are worried, we are deeply worried about the safety of our family back in Turkey. Because [the situation can change] in a minute. And the government is going after relatives of suspects they failed to locate,” he said in Turkish through an interpreter, a journalist colleague who also worked for a Gulen-linked newspaper.

Ahmet Yukselen is a pseudonym; he’s afraid using his real name will harm his family.

He said he’d like to apply to bring his family to Canada and see the Canadian government quickly process them for resettlement, because he says they are in danger.

This week, Mr. Erdogan declared a narrow victory in a referendum to abolish the office of the prime minister and give him as president more powers. Soon after the victory, a national security council moved to extend the state of emergency, on since the coup attempt, for three months.

Sri Lankan reporter separated from family seven years

Another journalist with the PEN Canada group, Illamaran “Maran” Nagarasa, arrived in Canada in 2009 along with 75 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers on the ship the Ocean Lady. Though Mr. Nagarasa was a freelance reporter who said he received death threats for his reporting during Sri Lanka’s civil war, which had just ended, Canadian government officials were suspicious that he and the other men on board were terrorists.

Sri Lankan journalist Illamaran ‘Maran’ Nagarasa arrived in Canada in 2009 aboard the Ocean Lady. It took him seven years to gain refugee status and bring his family to join him. The Hill Times photograph by Kristen Shane

Mr. Nagarasa spent four months in detention before being released on strict conditions, and was only recognized as a legitimate refugee in 2013.

He then started the process of bringing his wife, Pavithira, and daughter, Dishaly, to Canada. They had been moving from place to place in Sri Lanka to stay safe before he eventually helped them get to India, where they registered as refugees.

Those years separated from each other were tough, said Mr. Nagarasa in an interview. Dishaly was four years old when he left.

“‘Dad, can you kiss me, can you hug me?’” he recalled her asking during their Skype conversations. “I said, ‘[I can only] hug the laptop.’”

They arrived in Canada in August 2016, seven years since he’d last seen them, and only then through the dogged help of PEN Canada members, who made daily visits to then-immigration minister John McCallum’s constituency office near Toronto to press the case. Mr. McCallum granted Mr. Nagarasa’s family a temporary resident permit, but that doesn’t guarantee them permanent residency.

“We need to get their families here in a timely manner—not in five years,” said Ms. Nemat, the Writers in Exile chair and author of the memoir Prisoner of Tehran. These are special cases that deserve quick processing, she argued.

Arif Virani, then-parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, with Ilamaran Nagarasa’s wife Pavithira, daughter Dishaly, Mr. Nagarasa, and PEN Canada’s Marina Nemat, at a party days after Mr. Nagarasa’s family was reunited in Toronto last August after seven years apart. Photograph courtesy of Ilamaran Nagarasa

“They’re special because they have lost everything, because they were fighting corruption and injustice and dictatorship and a lack of freedom of speech, because these are the foot soldiers of freedom of speech.”

Yet she said it was easier for her to recently get two Iranian journalists out of Turkey to safety in Norway, with help of Norwegian non-governmental organizations, than it is to resettle threatened writers in Canada. She’s not sure exactly why, but she and Mr. Nagarasa both pointed to bureaucratic red tape.

The Hill Times publisher Jim Creskey, a PEN Canada executive, hosted the delegation from Toronto for lunch during their Ottawa visit and has advocated for Mr. Nagarasa.

PEN Canada documents the cases it supports, said Ms. Nemat, working with lawyers and people who know the local language of the threatened writers.

She says officials from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada as well as Global Affairs Canada and other relevant departments should meet with PEN Canada members every three months.

The PEN members could bring them documented cases of writers threatened abroad or the family members of those in Canada. With some of the verification legwork done by PEN already, they would hope the government would speed up the processing of these high-risk cases. That’s not to say the government shouldn’t vet them for security and other concerns, Ms. Nemat emphasized, she just wants that done faster.

PEN representatives met with departmental officials three times in 2016 on issues related to writers at risk.


‘The department works as efficiently as possible’

NDP MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.), her party’s immigration critic, said she would support the idea of the government engaging with PEN on cases of journalists targeted for their work. But urgent action for people in acute danger ought to apply not only to threatened journalists, but also to others such as LGBTQ community members, she said.

The government should institute and follow standardized processing times for all immigration applications, including critical cases of people fleeing persecution, she said.

Shuvaloy Majumdar, a Munk Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, agreed with Ms. Kwan that it would be worthwhile for the government to receive information from groups like PEN.

“Generally speaking, expediting the persecuted and most vulnerable on that basis is a feasible objective. It’s something the government can do, should do, has done when it comes to sensitive cases of people on the lam who are obviously being persecuted as a result of their profession, faith, sexual orientation, whatever it might be,” said Mr. Majumdar, a former policy director to Conservative foreign ministers under Stephen Harper.

It gets thorny, though, when it comes to, for instance, journalists seeking Canada’s protection from Turkey, a Canadian ally in the NATO military alliance, he said. “Each case is very unique, and has to be handled delicately.”

The Harper Conservatives issued a policy directive to bureaucrats to prioritize the most vulnerable Syrian and Iraqi refugee cases, he said. The government was accused of discrimination for putting non-Muslim religious minorities first, but Mr. Majumdar said the policy was about prioritizing people in all vulnerable groups, and not just one.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his party would not prioritize specific religious or ethnic minorities, though the Liberal government did agree under much pressure from Conservatives to resettle 1,200 Yazidi refugees and other victims of Islamic State violence by the end of the year. Canada’s Parliament has agreed that the militant Islamic group is committing genocide against the Yazidis, an ethnic minority in Iraq.

An immigration ministry spokesperson did not directly answer when asked whether it would consider starting regular meetings with PEN to facilitate expedited processing of special cases of threatened journalists or their family members.

Instead, spokesperson Nancy Caron pointed to Canada’s work with the United Nations Refugee Agency, which goes by the acronym UNHCR, to identify refugees the agency determines, based on vulnerability, to be in need of Canadian resettlement. In addition, she said, Canada has an Urgent Protection Program that allows visa officers to respond to UNHCR requests for resettlement of people in urgent need of protection because of immediate threats to their life or liberty. And she said private sponsors in Canada may also identify people for resettlement.

“The department works as efficiently as possible to resettle refugees given operational and security limitations in various areas,” she wrote, in an emailed response to questions. “Refugee processing is complex due to work with some of the world’s most at-risk people in challenging local conditions. Some of these factors include establishing identity, addressing security concerns as well as logistical challenges that are outside of IRCC’s control.”

The department, she added, has a goal of getting rid of the backlog of pending applications by 2019, and slashing long wait times for new applications to about 12 months.




Top 10 source countries for inland asylum claims, 2016

Rank Country Cases Referred % Accepted
1 Nigeria 1,565 44
2 China 1,330 33
3 Pakistan 1,165 74
4 Turkey 1,106 83
5 Iraq 1,061 78
6 Syria 969 94
7 Hungary 957 61
8 Colombia 821 62
9 Eritrea 748 80
10 Somalia 719 65
Other 13,178 60
All 23,619 62

Source: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

Note: Cases referred are not necessarily finalized in the same year and are based on all intake types by country of alleged persecution.

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