Yemeni sisters stuck in bureaucratic limbo in Ottawa after ID document confiscated

Two young Yemeni women who illegally crossed into Canada last month say they're caught in bureaucratic limbo in Ottawa after a government official confiscated their only piece of identification.

Walked across Quebec-New York border after first trying to come to Canada legally

A woman claiming to be from Yemen wipes tears from her eyes as she is told not to enter the U.S.-Canada border into Hemmingford, Que., on Feb. 22. The woman crossed the border despite being told not to and was arrested. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Two Yemeni sisters who illegally crossed into Canada last month say they're caught in bureaucratic limbo in Ottawa after a government official confiscated their only piece of identification.

The women, aged 20 and 18, crossed illegally from the U.S. on Feb. 22 with the hopes of avoiding being deported to Yemen — which is currently embroiled in a civil war — under an executive order from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The two women are Yemeni citizens, but have lived their entire lives in the United Arab Emirates and have never been to the country, they said.

"I want to be a doctor, because it's my dream. So I choose Canada," said the older of the two sisters, whom the CBC has agreed not to identify due to concerns about their personal safety. 

Earlier this month, Trump signed a new version of his controversial travel ban, aiming to withstand court challenges while still barring new visas for citizens from six Muslim-majority countries — including Yemen.

The travel ban has resulted in a rise in the number of people illegally crossing the border from the U.S. in to Canada, with Canadian officials reporting nearly 2,300 people had made inland refugee claims between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21, as opposed to at an official border point.

There were slightly more than 1,800 illegal crossings during the same period in 2016, officials have said.

Tried to come to Canada legally

The sisters were originally facing deportation to Yemen from the United Arab Emirates — a common fate for Yemeni citizens living in the UAE, they said, who have few legal protections — when they arrived in the U.S. in November 2016, they said.

"We were born [in the UAE]. We lived there, we studied there. We'd never been to Yemen before," said the younger sister.

After Trump announced his initial travel ban, the sisters tried to immigrate legally to Canada. They were refused entry, so in February they boarded a taxi that took them to a spot close to the New York-Quebec border and walked into Canada.

They were arrested by RCMP officers and spent at least two days in detention before being released, they said.

Once they arrived in Canada, the women's passports and other pieces of identification were confiscated, with each receiving a form called a Refugee Protection Claimant Document that included their names and photographs, they said.

A portion of the Refugee Protection Claimant Document issued to one of the two Yemeni sisters, with identifying details obscured. (CBC)

Those documents, which CBC was shown photographs of, state that the recipient is entitled to provisions under the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act, including health care coverage and the chance to apply for what's called "pre-removal risk assessment."

On Friday, however, the two women had the documents confiscated by a government official when they went to have their file transferred to Ottawa.

The Canada Border Services Agency did not respond to requests Friday for more information about that document, who it is normally given to, and whether — in this case — it was issued in error. 

After those documents were confiscated, the women spent the afternoon waiting to speak with a lawyer at the Catholic Centre for Immigrants in Ottawa, with help from representatives from the local Yemeni-Canadian community.

'Give them a chance'

"I feel very sorry for them," said Abdulnaser Atef, a member of Canadian Yemeni Community and Heritage Ottawa, a local volunteer organization.

Atef said that the organization wanted the sisters to come to Ottawa from Montreal so that they could offer more help with their refugee status application. On Friday, he said, a lawyer had agreed to help the sisters sort out their legal quagmire.

"I really urge the government [should] give them a chance to be heard, at least. To hear their story, at least."

Carl Nicholson, executive director of the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, didn't know about the women's case specifically, but he told CBC News the process of seeking asylum can often be an "emotional" one for claimants.

"It's always an emotional process. If you think about it, you know, here's a person who's coming from quite some distance away ... they don't know what their future fate is going to be," Nicholson said.

"Of course they're going to be anxious and worried. That just comes with the territory."