The Curious (Refugee) Case of Roger Hassaballa

Source of pic: nationalpost.com
Source of pic: nationalpost.com

I recently read a decision from an immigration case involving a Coptic Christian refugee applicant seeking asylum in Canada. After reading the decision, I remembered hearing my friends and family commenting on how Egyptians living abroad cannot really have an impact on what happens in Egypt.

This claim is often made to calm the anxious, and to absolve one’s conscience that their lack of political participation is warranted.

I’d like to show you how this is simply false. I want to talk to you about the “curious” case of Mr. Roger George S. Rizk Hassaballa (Rizk Hassaballa v Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), 2007 FC 489 (CanLII)).

Background Info: Mr. Roger Hassaballa

Mr. Hassaballa was a Coptic Christian, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt for the majority of his life. While he was there, he began talking to a Muslim female friend about his Christian faith, though it is not clear whether their friendship was anything more than that. At some point in time, news of this friendship reached the ears of members of the Gamaa Islamiyya, one of the most notoriously fundamentalist radical groups in Egypt. It is claimed by Mr. Hassaballa that he was threatened with violence by this radical group for sharing his faith. Mr. Hassaballa also claimed that he received several threatening phone calls from this group. Finally, he claimed that the Egyptian government was not doing anything to protect him from religious persecution.

Mr. Hassaballa came to Canada in December 2003, seeking asylum. In his application, Mr. Hassaballa claimed that he was fleeing from a hostile environment in Egypt, where his life was threatened by radical Muslims and that the Egyptian government was implicitly condoning this violence.

Mr. Hassaballa’s application for refugee status came before an Immigration Officer for a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA). This assessment is a routine procedure conducted by immigration officials to determine if you have a well-founded fear of persecution, and whether there are actual risks of persecution facing the applicant upon their return to their home country.

Essentially, this officer gets to decide whether Mr. Hassaballa is a refugee or not. In order to decide that, the immigration officer has to answer this question: is Mr. Hassaballa’s case an example of discrimination/harassment, or persecution?

There is a difference between the two. The problem is that it’s difficult to define persecution because there is no real “test” for it. In this case, it seemed that the ultimate decision is up to the immigration officer’s discretion, and what they think is best based on the circumstances.

According to the Immigration officer, the situation in Egypt was not an example of persecution. Sure, Mr. Hassaballa’s case was unfortunate, but it did not seem like an example of a state that condones persecution against a minority. The following is a quote from the immigration officer’s assessment of the situation in Egypt:

“Evidence found in country reports and articles indicate that there are elements of discrimination directed towards people who do not worship in the Islamic faith in Egypt. The evidence does not however indicate that this discrimination amounts to persecution. There are many Christians who practice their faith without difficulty. The state has taken steps to curtain acts of discrimination, through education programs, the establishment of a National Council on Human Rights and recognition as a national holiday; the observance of Christmas.” [Emphasis added].

According to the Immigration officer, the government’s efforts to “curtain” acts of discrimination through education programs and having a National Council on Human Rights (whose reports and warnings are often ignored by the same government that established it) was sufficient proof to come to the conclusion that Egypt does not discriminate against its minorities.

Relying on this assessment, the judge upheld the Immigration officer’s findings and dismissed Mr. Hassaballa’s application for judicial review (i.e. having a judge revisit the decision made by the PRRA officer to see if she got it right).

Something about this decision doesn’t sit right with me.

Standard of Review: Correctness, or Reasonableness?

In administrative law, there is a standard of reviewing decisions called the “reasonableness” standard. This complex standard basically asks the judge reviewing the decision one question: “do you see how the decision maker arrived at that conclusion?”. And, if so, “was that conclusion within a range of possible outcomes?”.

It’s a difficult question to answer, of course. It requires the judge to put herself in the decision maker’s shoes and almost re-create the thinking process that took place to reach that decision. If the judge can see how the decision was made, then the decision stands, even if the judge doesn’t agree or like the final decision.

In this case, I think the judge could have found the need for judicial review based on the other standard for judicial review: a standard of correctness. In the decision, the judge says that the officer considered all relevant evidence in the matter (at para 25), but this is not evident from the decision. The officer came to the conclusion that Copts are definitely not persecuted in the country – however, she arrived at this conclusion without considering much evidence that contradicts this conclusion. The officer’s notes indicate that there are “elements” of discrimination, but does not elaborate on the extent of those elements, or to what extent they have led to examples of persecution. This indicates that the evidence she examined was weak (and, if that’s the case, then the opportunity should be given to Mr. Hassaballa to present evidence to support his claim) or that she made a decision contrary to the evidence before her. Either way, this should be sufficient to trigger a need for a review of the evidence used by the officer, which goes against what many major international organizations inside and outside of Egypt have been saying.

Correctness is a more demanding standard, and asks if the immigration officer “got it right”. In my opinion, having a standard of correctness would require an immigration officer to look at any and all evidence that supports, as well as contradicts, the allegation that the Egyptian government allows minorities to be persecuted. In the case of reviewing the Egyptian government’s actions toward protecting its Christian minority, one would agree that the Egyptian government allows its Christian minority to be persecuted on an implicit basis, and that there is a real basis for Coptic refugees to have a well-founded fear of persecution if they are forced to return to Egypt.

Ultimately, Mr. Hassaballa’s application failed on numerous grounds (one of them being the fact that he returned to Egypt since he left to visit his dying mother and did not face any threats from Islamist extremists). However, if the situation had been different, is it possible that refugee claimants like Mr. Hassaballa could be sent back to a dangerous situation based on erroneous or incomplete information.

Egyptians abroad have a role to play in this

To me, this is where Egyptians abroad can do their part in terms of highlighting the real story that’s on the ground, and making this information readily available for government decision makers. There are things that happen on a daily basis that demonstrate a more growing concern about what life is really like for minorities in Egypt, things that wouldn’t necessarily come up in “country reports and articles”. Some of these things were widely known in Egypt at the time this officer was doing the research.

For example, when this officer did the research in 2004, Christian families were still trying to get justice for the massacre of Egyptians that occurred in the village of El-Kosheh in 2000. The majority of the accused were acquitted, and the only person convicted of murder in that case was someone charged for killing a non-Christian individual (the mention of a person’s religion here is necessary because under Egyptian penal law, a murder conviction must be reviewed by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, as per the requirements of Islamic Sharia’h Law).

There are numerous other incidents such as the El-Kosheh massacre that demonstrate flare-ups of persecution in the country. And, when considered with the examples of daily discrimination that Coptic Christians and other minorities in the country face, the situation becomes more than just “unfortunate”.

If Egyptians can collect and organize information in a coherent way, then perhaps government officials like the Immigration officer can make a more informed decision on cases involving Coptic Christian refugees (and refugees from other minorities).

This becomes very important now as the emigration of Coptic Christians and Christians from other parts of the Arab world increases exponentially in the wake of the Arab Spring. Radical groups are targeting these minorities and, for many families, coming to Canada is the only way for families to remain physically safe from danger, and to have basic freedoms like freedom to worship that many of us take for granted. If government decision makers are going to deny Coptic refugee applicants the opportunity to come to Canada, then let them do so on a reasonable ground relating to their case, not on a claim as ridiculous as “there is no persecution in Egypt”.

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