Hundreds of Mexican refugee claimants are entering Canada every month due to spiralling drug cartel violence and the presence of scam artists promising refuge in Canada, experts say.
In the first four months of this year, 4,768 asylum applications from Mexican citizens were referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, the most out of any country of origin.
More than 8,000 cases were referred in 2008, and the refugee board has a backlog of 13,300 applications.
Alberto Lozano, spokesman for the Mexican embassy in Ottawa, said less than 11% of the applications are approved, which he said suggests “that several cases are linked with economic issues.”
“I wouldn’t say that most of the cases were linked with violence in their homeland,” Mr. Lozano said.
“That’s why it’s a pretty touchy issue.”
Mr. Lozano said there is an industry in Mexico dedicated to providing false information about immigrating to Canada.
“There’s some people who are fake, let’s say paralegal . . . people trying to scam them and telling them that they could apply for visa or work permits and they can teach them how to ask for asylum or whatever with a payment in exchange,” he said.
Mr. Lozano said his office has been working with the Canadian government to arrest such fraudsters.
Canada determines whether claimants are eligible for asylum according to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees.
It defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country . . .”
People arriving at the border from Mexico can claim refugee status, and if they are successful in having their case referred to the IRB can remain in Canada for some time.
Amnesty International notes on its website that in Canada “the complete processing of a refugee claim usually takes months, or even years.”
About 41% of the asylum applications received so far this year have either been rejected, abandoned or withdrawn.
But even though many asylum applications from Mexico are dubious, a lot are justified, said Rusty Fleming, who has researched Mexican drug cartels for the past five years and produced the documentary, Drug Wars: Silver or Lead.
Mr. Fleming said that since Mexican President Felipe Calderon has increased efforts to attack the drug cartels in the past 24 months, violence against citizens not involved in the drug business has increased dramatically and the government cannot protect them.
“The mere fact that we’re seeing [drug cartels] use car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and standing up and fighting the military . . . they’ve always had this weaponry . . . but they’ve never felt threatened,” said Mr. Fleming.
He said the cartels have started exhibiting more of a willingness to kill innocent people because their business–estimated at between $40- and $100-billion annually–is at stake.
“They’ll kill 20 innocent people today just to get to the one guy they want. And before they weren’t willing to do that,” Mr. Fleming said.
He added that he has been “screaming at Congress” for years that the United States will start seeing more refugees because of the violence, and said Canada should expect more as well.
Mr. Fleming said that many Mexican citizens who are threatened by the cartels can’t just move to another part of Mexico.
“If they want you they will get you,” he said.
Moreover, because the government is cutting into the cartels’ ability to operate freely, they are losing money and looking to cut costs “like any good Fortune 500 company,” Mr. Fleming said.
The consequence is that more people are being intimidated by violence, rather than money.
Mr. Fleming said that he doesn’t think there is a danger of criminals sneaking over the border into Canada under the guise of a refugee claimant because they would have to register themselves with the government.
Representatives of the RCMP, the refugee board and the Canadian Border Services Agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Human Rights Watch cites in its World Report 2009 that Mexico’s justice system “continues to be plagued by human rights problems. Persons under arrest or imprisonment face torture and ill-treatment.
Law enforcement officials often neglect to investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights violations, including abuses perpetrated during law enforcement operations.”
The Mexican government’s pressure on drug cartels is also connected with the recent record number of gang-related killings in British Columbia, said Robert Gordon, director of Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology.
“There is quite clearly connections [with Mexican drug cartels and Canada] as far as the flow of cocaine that goes north and the marijuana that goes south,” said Mr. Gordon. “Think of the drug trade as continent-wide.”
Mr. Gordon said cocaine that originates in Colombia is smuggled through Mexico, then travels up the United States through routes controlled by the cartels and into British Columbia where it is often traded for marijuana.
“Where there is a shortage of supply and the demand is strong there will be conflict.”
Mr. Gordon added that he didn’t know of any direct involvement of Mexican cartels in Canada but “that may change.” Mr. Fleming concurs. He said Mexican refugees might only be the beginning of the problem.
“Anywhere there are narcotics to be sold, they want to be in on that action. They are consistently and constantly looking to expand. So we’re going to start seeing these organized criminal elements in places we’ve never seen them before.”