Israel is a democracy with a strong and vibrant free press and an independent judiciary. Still, Canada remains the only country in the world to accept refugee claims from Israel.
Not only does Canada accept refugees from Israel, but research shows the number of those being given that status has increased this decade after a previous decline.
In the past 18 years, nearly 11,000 Israelis have sought refugee status in Canada. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) has granted refugee status – which will allow the person to apply for Canadian citizenship – to more than 1,600 Israelis or 15 per cent of total claims.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a rise in the number of refugee claims from Israel. In 2007, 17 per cent of these claims were accepted, for a total of 34 claimants. Since the IRB publishes mostly negative decisions from Israel, it is difficult to assess the composition of claimants.
Many explain that the increase in claims in recent years was due to the second intifadah and the Second Lebanon War. The grounds for claims were most frequently objection to military service, followed by racial and religious discrimination and domestic abuse.
From a political standpoint, Canada’s acceptance of Israeli refugees comes from a desire to be perceived internationally as a human rights promoter. By accepting refugees from other countries, Canada seeks to elevate itself above other countries.
When he was prime minister, Jean Chrétien appointed several Federal Court judges and IRB panel members. These judges and members, whether out of a sense of obligation or because they actually had ideologies in line with government policies, were more likely to view Israel as a human rights violator, and therefore grant refugee status to those claiming such from Israel.
Community and official Israeli intervention ultimately brought about a decline in acceptance rates, particularly in Quebec. In the early 1990s, Quebec’s IRB had a significantly higher acceptance rate than the IRBs in Ontario and Western Canada.
The prevailing thought was that Quebec’s IRB members were anti-Israel and used their position to show Israel as a human rights abuser by accepting its refugee claimants.
The Israeli Embassy had suggested that this was due to higher rates of anti-Semitism in Quebec.
In 1994, community leaders, including MP Irwin Cotler and Jonathan Livni, held a conference with Quebec IRB members and NGOs to examine the issue and highlight Israel’s judicial systems.
In the following years, the Quebec IRB’s acceptance rate for Israelis dropped. During the same period, Ontario’s IRB accepted many more Israeli refugees than Quebec did, but this fact slipped by unnoticed by many.
The current refugee system makes it difficult to get a clear picture of why some IRB members accept these claims while others don’t.
The IRB is not required to publish the reasons for accepting refugees and only recently began publishing a larger number of positive cases. Previously, the IRB only published those cases that it deemed to be “in the public interest.” While the Federal Court offers more transparency, it is not consistent in its rulings.
Although providing grounds of conscientious objection or gender persecution only slightly increases one’s odds of acceptance, the outcome of a case seems to be more dependent on the judge’s or IRB member’s stance on Israel.
The result of Canada’s accepting refugee claims from Israel is that it provides ammunition for those who claim that Israel is a human rights violator. While the Jewish community tries to improve Israel’s image and Canada’s relationship with Israel, each successful refugee claim is a small step backward.
But the IRB’s actions don’t just make Israel look bad in the public eye. It also creates tension within Canada’s Jewish community.
A majority of those claiming refugee status from Israel are Russian, and this causes resentment toward Israeli Russian Jews in Canada because they are seen as working against the Jewish community’s causes.
The Israeli Russian Jews who do claim refugee status here rather than going through regular immigration channels sometimes do so out of ignorance of the repercussions. Many are counselled by local immigration consultants to tailor their claims to be more successful. They had encountered legitimate economic difficulty in Israel and wanted to improve their standing by working in Canada, but had exhausted or were unaware of the traditional immigration options.
Like other Israelis who have moved to Canada, most Israeli Russian Jews arrived here legitimately.
Often overlooked is that many non-Russian Israelis make similar claims without garnering community attention or admonishment. A common misconception is that Israelis who claim refugee status in Canada are Russian Jews. This has led to some Russian Jews from Israel in Canada being seen as “double dippers” who take advantage of the rights awarded to them.
But while Russian-Israelis make up the largest group, Israelis from many backgrounds – sabras, Romanians, Ethiopians, Arabs and Turks, among others – also seek status in Canada.
The early 1990s saw the largest wave of Israeli refugee claimants in Canada, with numbers peaking at 1,981 in 1993. Although the IRB does not tally the ethnicity of claimants, a majority of these claims were made following the massive aliyah from the Soviet Union.
In the turmoil of the mass exodus of Russian Jewry to Israel, many who met the criteria of the Law of Return (one Jewish grandparent) but who were not halachic Jews arrived in Israel. Within several years, claims to the IRB from Russian Israelis began to queue.
Professors Robert Barsky and Irving Abella, two prominent scholars on the topic of Russian migration, claim that many non-Jewish Russians used false documentation to leave Russia for Israel in hopes of having better economic conditions and stability.
However, upon arrival in Israel, they were quick to be uncovered as non-Jews and felt resentment from co-workers, neighbours and officials. While this may have been the catalyst for immigration to Canada from Israel, some of those who claimed refugee status used “conscientious objection” to military duty as the basis of their claim. In published claims, all those who made this type of claim in the early 1990s were non-Jews.
The only positive ruling published by IRB during this period is from a Palestinian man who was making claims of persecution against both the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
The mid-1990s to early 2000s saw a drop in the number of refugee claims from Israel, with the highest number of claims at 1,260 in 1996, dropping to 253 in 2000.
The percentage of accepted claims also dropped significantly, ranging between two per cent and 22 per cent. Again, Russians made up the majority of Israeli claimants; however, a larger number of these were Jewish.
During this time, claims of persecution were being made by Russian Jews who were harassed by native Israelis, had difficulty finding work or were being abused by their husbands. Those who returned to their native countries, such as the Ukraine and Moldova, and then sought refugee status in Canada found their claims being assessed as if they had made the claim from Israel.
A pivotal case in the late 1990s was that of the Kadenko family. Typical of other Israeli-Russian refugee claims, the Kadenkos cited discrimination against them in Israel because they were not fully Jewish, and initially had their claim accepted.
The Canadian government appealed the decision and won, based on Israel having the judicial apparatus in place to address these situations.
This case made similar claims of religious discrimination by claimants from Israel less likely to succeed.
Although the IRB is more likely to provide refugee status to Israelis who claim persecution because they refused military service, this justification isn’t sure-fire grounds for acceptance, either.
Inna Tsinman Grebler has master’s degree in immigration and settlement from Ryserson University and is currently studying law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.