July 15, 2019 8:29 pm

‘I will fight until I have no breath left’: Okanagan woman fights deportation

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An Okanagan woman is making a desperate appeal as she faces deportation to South Africa.

Lea Thorne, 50, is a South African citizen who has been residing in Penticton since 2013.

She travelled to Canada on a visitor visa and fell in love with the Okanagan as well as her partner, Walter Soukeroff.

“I just don’t want her to go. I love her very much and it’s scary to think that she would have to go back there,” Soukeroff told Global News on Monday.

In 2017, Thorne filed for refugee protection. She said she was the victim of sexual violence and fears for her life should she be forced to return home.

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“I was raped in 1987. I don’t know who my perpetrator is because I was unconscious,” she said.

“That alone puts the fear of God in me for going back.”

In another incident, she and her young daughter barely escaped being seized from their car in an apparent kidnapping attempt.

In June 2018, the Refugee Protection Division (RPD) determined Thorne is a Convention refugee and her claim was accepted.

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The division, which hears and decides claims for refugee protection made in Canada, said in its decision that Thorne “has a well-founded fear of persecution” and is a reliable witness “who genuinely fears returning to South Africa.”

It also said male attitudes regarding women are highly problematic in South Africa, and that there’s been a drastic increase in violence against women and children and despite violence prevention initiatives, saying, “the adequacy of the government’s response to rape is extremely dubious.”

“I find that the claimant has more than a mere possibility of being sexually assaulted in South Africa,” the decision says.

But Thorne’s dreams of a future in the Okanagan were quashed when the government successfully appealed and the Convention refugee claim was set aside.

A decision by the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) said Thorne is not a Convention refugee and is not in need of protection.

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RAD, which decides appeals of decisions of the Refugee Protection Division, said while gender violence is recognized as widespread by international human rights organizations, it does not amount to a sex assault pandemic and can’t be considered a systematic persecution.

“I find the Respondent has not established a profile that demonstrates that she would be singled out for persecution on the basis of her race or gender or that she would not be protected by the state,” the decision states.

Thorne is heartbroken by the ruling.

“It’s been hell,” she said. “It’s been hell.”

Successful refugee protection claims against South Africa are rare in Canada.

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Data from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada shows that of 45 claims finalized in 2018, seven claimants were accepted as refugees or persons in need of protection, a 16 per cent acceptance rate. In 2017, four of 24 claims finalized were accepted, a 17 per cent acceptance rate.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Peter Edelmann is not involved in Thorne’s case but said there are hurdles for refugee protection claimants from South Africa.

“One of the big challenges with a claim against South Africa…is that it’s a big country where you have different situations in different parts of the country, and so one of the factors in a refugee claim is that a person is expected to move to another part of their own country where they can be safe before they seek protection of another country like Canada,” he said.

Edelmann said that South Africa is perceived as a stable democracy where state protection is available. “So people can go to the police or the courts or to other government authorities to get protection if they’re facing persecution,” he said.

Despite the uphill battle, Thorne isn’t giving up. She plans to file an appeal in federal court.

“I will fight until I have no breath left,” she said.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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