From death threats to limbo: A Colombian refugee's 12 years of waiting in Canada
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For years, Luis Alberto Mata has helped hundreds of newcomers build a new life in Canada and integrate into the community.
Ironically, the Toronto immigrant settlement counsellor himself is not a permanent resident, let alone a Canadian citizen.
Although Mata and his family were granted asylum in Canada in 2003 owing to the danger they faced for his human rights activism in Colombia, he has remained merely a “protected person” in Canada because immigration officials still haven’t rendered a decision on his permanent residence application.
Canadian authorities would not reveal what caused the 12-year delay, but the family’s lawyer and supporters believe it’s a result of him being mislabeled as a “guerrilla sympathizer and collaborator” in propaganda by previous Colombian authorities.
On Friday, Mata’s supporters will launch a campaign at the Toronto United Mennonite Church to raise public awareness over the man’s predicament and urge Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to grant him permanent status.
“No one disagrees that we need the security checks against people who apply for permanent residency,” said Gloria Nafziger of Amnesty International, one of many international and local advocacy groups vouching for Mata.
“However, our officials can’t just go on a fishing mission. The worst thing that can happen is for them not to make a decision. We need a fair process.”
A social justice advocate, journalist and author, Mata, 52, and his wife, Diana Marcela Gallego, 47, a lawyer, fled to Canada in 2002 after receiving repeated threats from paramilitary forces.
In fact, the threat against the couple and their son, Jacobo, had been serious enough that in 2001 Amnesty International issued a “call for urgent action” to advocate for their safety. The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights also formally requested the Colombian government assure their safety.
Before they appeared for their refugee hearing, Mata and Gallego were interviewed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about their involvement with a number of political and human rights organizations in Colombia.
The family was granted asylum in Canada in 2003 — with no intervention by immigration officials — and applied for permanent residence the following year. The wait dragged on for so long Mata ultimately decided to split his own application from that of his son and wife, who got their permanent status in 2007 and 2014, respectively.
Mata’s lawyer, Leigh Salsberg, said her client has not been deemed inadmissible in Canada. She suspects the delay stems from Mata’s membership in the Patriotic Union, a movement that came out of the peace dialogues between the infamous FARC guerilla movement and the Colombian government in 1985.
The leftist political party was found by FARC or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Colombian Communist Party
“The information on Patriotic Union that immigration officials rely on is outdated,” said Salsberg, adding that four experts have provided affidavits that the group is a legal political party and takes part in elections and public offices.
Mata, an immigrant settlement counsellor at Toronto’s Mennonite New Life and author of books about political violence and Patriotic Union in Colombia, said living in limbo for 12 years has taken a toll on him and his family.
“Why (can) other writers from around the world … enjoy the freedom of expression in Canada, while my books about the origins of the conflicts and human rights violations in Colombia are under severe scrutiny? Why is that?” asked Mata, who was the inaugural fellow for PEN Canada and City of Toronto Writers in Exile. “Twelve years now, 12 years of sadness and frustration. It’s enough.”
A Citizenship and Immigration Canada Immigration spokesperson said Mata’s security and admissibility assessment is still pending.