Lebanese refugee claims in Canada surge in first three months of 2020

A boy stands next to a fire burning on the street during an anti-government protest at Lebanese parliament on Aug. 10, 2020, in Beirut, Lebanon.

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More than 200 refugee claims have been filed in Canada by asylum-seekers from Lebanon in the first three months of the year, with claimants alleging political persecution in a country that’s been plunged into chaos by a corrupt government and a collapsing economy.

That number of refugee claims so far this year is a significant increase from the previous two years. In all of 2019, 552 people made a claim against Lebanon, and 439 claims were made in all of 2018, according to statistics from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Bassam Azzi, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Ottawa, said his office has heard from Lebanese citizens in Canada who are seeking ways to stay and also from people in Lebanon who have asked for advice on how to immigrate to Canada. He said the 202 claims filed in Canada this year could include people who are stateless in addition to Lebanese citizens.

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“Because of the situation that’s going on in Lebanon – the economic crisis, the financial crisis – … people are just, in their own words, they’re ‘fed up’ and they don’t see Lebanon as a safe place for them to stay,” he said.

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Mr. Azzi said those who are already inside Canada could be visitors, students or temporary residents and may have been politically active in Lebanon and fearful of returning because they criticized the government. Some, he said, have been threatened, so they have inquired about making a refugee claim. Others have said they are not politically active but are worried about living conditions.

Mr. Azzi said he is expecting to hear from “many more” people in Lebanon who are interested in immigrating to Canada or claiming asylum here after last week’s explosion in Beirut’s port that obliterated the facility, caused extensive destruction, killed at least 160 people and injured about 6,000 others.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned on Monday, saying in a televised speech that corruption in the country is “bigger than the state.”

Mr. Azzi said calls from people in Lebanon began in October, 2019, as citizens took to the streets to protest continuing corruption in government and banking.

“I think it is very sad what’s going on in Lebanon. I think the people are suffering,” he said, adding that many in Lebanon do not have access to basic services; there is limited access to health care as well as daily power shortages.

Lama Mourad, an assistant professor at Carleton University and an expert on Lebanon, said the uprising in October saw Lebanese civil society call out people in power in ways that hadn’t been seen before, and as a result, people are more worried about their physical safety and their lives.

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“People are concerned; there are documented cases of activists and scholars having been taken to court or have been physically beaten for calling out corruption among the banking sector, in particular, and the Lebanese politicians and the intersection of the two,” Prof. Mourad said.

She said the increasing numbers of refugee claims in Canada is the result of how politicians and the banking class have responded toward activists, journalists and others who have spoken out.

Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo, said even before the explosion, people in Lebanon felt there was no hope left in the country.

“I have no doubt that the vast majority of Lebanese are trying to find an exit strategy, and they will try to reach out to existing family. There’s more Lebanese in the diaspora than there are inside the country, quite literally more living outside than inside, and so they will be reaching out to family networks abroad,” she said.

On Monday, Prime Minister announced an additional $25-million to assist people in Lebanon in the wake of the explosion. This brings Ottawa’s aid to a total of $30-million.

Kevin Lemkay, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said the federal government is working with partners such as the Red Cross to help meet the urgent needs of those affected by the explosion.

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He added that Canada has been able to prioritize and resettle urgent cases from asylum seekers.

”All eligible asylum claimants receive a full and fair hearing on the individual merits of their claim at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. We will continue to work with the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration] and domestic organizations to maintain Canada’s commitment to offering asylum to the world’s most vulnerable,” he said.

With a report from the Associated Press.

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