In a move that could signal a change in the ability of Israelis from the former Soviet Union to claim refugee status in Canada, a Canadian federal court has rejected an Israeli couple’s claim of religious persecution in Israel.
The Federal Court of Canada in Ottawa last week upheld a ruling by the Immigration and Refugee Board, which found no basis to the claim of Mikhael and Tatyana Frid that they had suffered discrimination in Israel because the husband was not Jewish.
During the past two years, Canada has granted refugee status to more than 500 Israelis, most of whom originated from the former Soviet Union.
The high number of Israeli claimants ranked Israel fifth on the list of countries from which self-described refugees were seeking to emigrate, according to the refugee board’s quarterly statistics.
The issue garnered widespread publicity in Israel, where official expressed outrage at the notion that emigres who had fled the former Soviet Union with Israeli assistance were claiming religious persecution.
The acceptance of the Russians’ claims of persecution caused a diplomatic confrontation between Canada and Israel last summer, when Jerusalem called on Ottawa to stop accepting the alleged refugees.
The Frids, along with their daughter, Alice, emigrated from Kazakhstan to Israel in February 1992.
Mikhael Frid told Canada’s refugee board, and repeated in federal court, that his family had been harassed and persecuted in Israel because of their mixed status.
He claimed that he could not find employment, that Tatyana had been beaten by Israeli police, and that as a conscientious, objector, he had faced a prison term for refusing compulsory service in the Israeli military.
But Justice Marshall Rothstein concurred with the refugee board that if discrimination had occurred, it did not amount to persecution.
There is no evidence that the Israeli government “is persecuting those persons who they have invited to come to their country,” Rothstein wrote in his ruling.
That Federal Court decision could serve as a precedent for the 1,000 outstanding cases before the refugee board filed by Israelis, almost all of whom are originally from the former Soviet Union.
The court’s decision was welcomed by some immigration attorneys.
“Finally the Federal Court has made a pronouncement concerning the nonsense of all these allegations of persecution made by non-Jews from Russia who went to Israel,” immigration lawyer Sergio Karas said in an interview.
“These people sought to take advantage of the generosity of Israel,” he said.
After acquiring Israeli citizenship, they “turned around later and, strictly for personal gain, argued that the authorities of Israel were somehow involved in persecuting them or condoned the discrimination or harassment of them, all of which were arguments that were never supported by any objective evidence,” Karas said.
In an effort to stem he flood of perceived bogus refugee claims, Canadian officials imposed a visa requirement in May 1993 on visitors with temporary Israeli travel documents.
By pre-screening visa applicants, officials had hoped to make it harder for would-be claimants to reach Canada, officials said.
The visa measure stemmed from “the need to protect the integrity of the refugee system,” said immigrations spokeswoman Wendy Bontinen. “We have to demonstrate we have control of our borders,”
The visa requirement does not affect citizens of Israel traveling on a regular Israeli passport to Canada. That passport continues to be visa-exempt.
Ironically, many of the emigres from the former Soviet Union are highly educated and would qualify as immigrants to Canada, according to Toronto immigration lawyer Mendel Green.
“They have the impression that the only way to get to Canada is as a refugee,” he said. “They are to be pitied.”