Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board has been slow to accept what international aid agencies have been saying for years: Women are at high risk for being raped in Haiti.
In several recent decisions, the board has turned down refugee claims from Haitian women who fear becoming victims of sexual violence if deported, despite a significant body of evidence that rape has long been a systemic problem in the country and has worsened since January’s earthquake, with criminal gangs roaming camps.
Critics suggest some board adjudicators are falling victim to rape myths debunked by the Supreme Court of Canada more than 20 years ago. In many cases, adjudicators have concluded rape is a crime much like any other, and men and women are equally at risk of being victims.
Other adjudicators, however, have accepted there is a high risk that female refugee claimants, if returned to Haiti, would be persecuted simply because they are women, resulting in a patchwork of decisions by the board.
The issue reaches the Federal Court of Canada on Wednesday in a case involving Elmancia Dezameau of Toronto, who fears she and her four daughters, ages 11 to 2, will be subjected to sexual violence if ordered to return to Haiti.
Dezameau also worries she will be attacked by armed gang members as she was before she fled the island as a 19-year-old in 1994.
Dressed in military fatigues, members of a group called Vengeance descended on her home because her father, as a practitioner of voodoo, was suspected of being a typical working-class supporter of deposed Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
After beating her father, Dezameau recounted, they dragged her across the ground, tied her to a tree and set fire to the family’s house.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not lying,” she said. In the dining room of her Flemingdon Park home, Dezameau, 36, who supports her family by working as a hotel maid, lifted her skirt to reveal deep purple scars on both her upper legs. “There and there, too,” she said, pointing to her ankle and shoulder.
A medical report has corroborated the scars are consistent with such an attack. But in a decision last July, refugee board adjudicator Michael Hamelin didn’t believe her claim that she was politically active as a teenager and this, in turn, motivated the attack, placing her at risk of being targeted by political opponents in Haiti again today.
As for her fears about rape, Hamelin said while there is evidence that violence against women is a problem in Haiti, there are also “laws against committing acts of violence such as rape.”
But Lindsay Mossman, a women’s human rights campaigner for Amnesty International Canada, said Haitian women who report rape are often not believed and attackers are seldom charged.
“Perpetrators know for the most part they will not be facing prosecution for these crimes,” she said.
Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, the British medical journal The Lancet and the U.S. State Department have also found that violence and social discrimination against women are human rights problems in Haiti, with rape in particular being used as a tool of repression and perpetrators often members of the military.
But in a brief filed with the court for Wednesday’s hearing, the federal government said Dezameau is essentially arguing that all female refugee claimants from Haiti are automatically entitled to refugee protection because they face the possibility of sexual assault.
“Logically, this would mean that refugee hearings are unnecessary once the claimants have established their identity as females from Haiti,” Crown counsel Asha Gafar said in the document.
Raoul Boulakia, Dezameau’s lawyer, said human rights groups have very rarely identified rape as being a systemic problem as they have in Haiti. One other example might be the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite this, the Federal Court has also issued conflicting decisions on whether women are at particular risk of sexual violence in Haiti or whether their situation differs little from that of all Haitians who are at risk of becoming crime victims.
There is currently a moratorium on deportations to Haiti, Boulakia noted. While that would protect Dezameau from immediate removal, it could also leave her in a state of limbo, unable to apply for permanent resident status and entitled to only emergency health care.
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