By Francesca Billington
Refugee lawyers providing free legal aid in Canada (responsible only for 13 hours of aid for each client) are tasked with the challenge of learning the emotional stories of asylum seekers and refugees. For their court hearings, refugees will be asked to explain why they should be granted refugee protection status. Sometimes, this means multiple painstaking sessions of back and forth conversations between the lawyer and refugee, said to Bashir Khan, an immigration and refugee lawyer who was our guest at dinner on our first night in Winnipeg. He explained the slow and difficult process of identifying and constructing these narratives—not to mention the hours of practice he takes clients through to prepare them for unexpected questions they might be asked by board members at their court hearings. Often, they’ll be asked questions intended to stump them, to disprove their reasons for needing asylum and protected status.
Refugees in Canada are granted asylum or protection as a government-assisted refugee (GAR) or a privately sponsored refugee (PSR), who are funded either by religious or secular groups. Refugees who receive government assistance are selected by the government. While refugees can apply for asylum and receive multiple court hearings in the U.S., Canada has a policy that states refugees can apply only once; around 90% of refugees who are denied protection in the U.S. are then granted protection in Canada, Khan said. A lot of this has to do with how the United States interprets the law, a less liberal understanding of facts. Refugees do not have to change their narratives upon arriving the Canada, unless new developments have arisen and they want to report additional details. I’m curious to learn how differences in American and Canadian politics and legal interpretations contribute to this statistic, and whether these interpretations have changed since the Trump administration took office.
Khan said that in one case, he was able to help Venezuelan family present their case for prosecution because of their religion as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Without this factor, Khan might not have been able to find a way for them to be granted asylum. For several other cases, religious prosecution provides an angle for a family’s narrative. He only spoke about cases that worked in the favor of refugees, but I imagine there must be instances in which lawyers cannot find adequate “proof”, or times when hearings do not go as well as planned. How is the way the four University of Manitoba law students help refugees their construct narratives at the Welcome Place resettlement organization differ from the way legal aids do this same work? Do they follow the same structure in writing the narratives, and what do they do if they are sure that a story might not be persuasive enough for the courts?