In Depth

Vancouver couple caught in 'absurd' immigration law limbo launches Supreme Court appeal

Vancouver taxi driver Nisreen Ahamed Mohamed Nilam fled Sri Lanka as a refugee and passed his Canadian citizenship tests in 2015, but he's still waiting to be sworn in, after learning his case is snarled in a secret legal limbo.

'He's a law abiding refugee who is now being told to get lost,' says lawyer

Mohamed Nilam and his wife Fathima, simply want to start a new family in Vancouver and move on with their lives, but they've ended up snarled in Canadian cessation laws, says their lawyer, Doug Cannon. (Shutterstock)

Taxi driver Nisreen Ahamed Mohamed Nilam fled Sri Lanka almost a decade ago and successfully claimed refugee status, but he's still waiting to become a full Canadian citizen because his case is snarled in a changes to immigration policy.

Nilam, 36, came to Vancouver during a raging civil war in his home country in 2008.

His lawyer says he followed the rules when he made two return trips home, but now that Canada's immigration laws have changed, he's caught in a legal limbo.

"He's a law-abiding refugee who is now being told to get lost," said Doug Cannon, who has filed for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, questioning whether or not refugees are equal to other immigrants.

Tamil migrants look over the side of the MV Sun Sea which was intercepted off the coast of B.C. in 2010. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The case could affect hundreds of other refugees impacted by legislative changes made by the Conservative government in 2012.

Those changes allow the government to revoke permanent residency status for settled refugees, if the person travels back to their home country, uses their old passport or applies for a new passport.

The rules are based on the fact that a refugee fleeing from a dangerous situation needs Canada's protection and can't return to their home.

Returning home "may indicate that the individual does not require Canada's protection," a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada wrote to CBC on May 11.

"Strong and compelling evidence is still required in order for the IRB to determine that the need for refugee protection has ceased."

Nilam's mistake

Nilam fled fearing the persecution of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, flying to the U.S. and crossing into B.C. on foot near the Peace Arch border crossing in 2008.

He says that when the civil war was over three years later, he returned home twice to visit his ailing mother and then to get married.

When he returned from his trip with his new wife, they dreamed of starting a family in Vancouver.

Border guards offered them good wishes as they entered Canada.

in 2012, then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said cessation and revoking a person's permanent residency status would happen when people defraud the asylum system. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But in the meantime, changes to the law allowed officials to reopen asylum files.

Then Immigration Minister Jason Kenny promised this would help catch frauds and fakes.

But immigration experts say instead "cessation applications" create fear and clog the refugee hearing system.

Cannon says the focus on pushing people out suggests "refugees really are just opportunists — or they are a constant burden on our society, and we should get rid of as many as we can.

"Like that kind of stuff is just nonsense." 

Swearing in never came

Nilam only learned he was being flagged for his earlier trips home after writing his citizenship tests in 2015 and awaiting word of the date for his swearing-in ceremony.

Cannon says immigration officials secretly set Nilam's file aside.

Canada Border Services agents wear surgical masks as they board the MV Sun Sea. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

"When he came to me, he was baffled," said Cannon, describing his client's shock at being barred from citizenship.

Nilam's wife, Fathima, 30, has obtained permanent residency status — but Nilam may now be deported, despite living in Vancouver, working as a taxi driver, paying taxes like a "model citizen," says his lawyer.

'Absurd law'

New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan says the campaign to oust Nilam is ridiculous.

She says the cessation laws need to change, with 293 refugees stalled by this process as of late 2016.

"This is an absurd law — let's get on with it," said Kwan.

Refugee Rights' watchers say the majority of cases under the amended laws come out of B.C., driven by an aggressive Canada Border Service Agency team, in the wake of the arrival of the MV Sun Sea in 2010, when about 490 Tamil migrants arrived on the ship seeking refugee status.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says while cessation rules are common worldwide, Canada's version is flawed.

CBSA did not respond to interview requests. A media relations person for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada refused an interview based on privacy concerns.

NDP Immigration critic Jenny Kwan says laws that allow revocation of refugees residency are absurd and have left 293 refugees stalled in legal limbo. (CBC)