Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is launching an internal review of one of its members after a Global News investigation revealed he asked a female asylum seeker why her husband didn’t “just kill” her — a question the board now admits was “insensitive.”
“Without speaking to the merits of the decision itself, the board has reviewed the matter and is of the view that the comments made by the member were insensitive,” said Line-Alice Guibert-Wolff.
“The board is undertaking an internal review of this matter and will take appropriate action as required.”
On Wednesday, Global News reported that during a hearing in April, Yonatan Rozenszajn repeatedly asked Halima Alari – a woman who says she fled Nigeria after more than a decade of domestic abuse – why her husband didn’t kill her instead of beating and harassing her for years.
Rozenszajn said he didn’t understand why these beatings continued even after Alari left her husband and moved to a different city.
An audio recording of the hearing shows Alari tried to answer Rozenszajn’s questions by explaining that her husband beat her because he wanted a boy and she had only given birth to girls.
But Rozenszajn persisted, asking her the same or a similar question four times in a row.
“If he really wants you to be gone, why doesn’t he just kill you?” he asked.
Rozenszajn rejected Alari’s claim, saying she was untrustworthy and that she did not provide credible evidence.
He also said she misrepresented her medical history and omitted important information about her husband that was critical to her claim.
Alari has appealed this decision, saying Rozenszajn’s questions were an “egregious violation” of the board’s guidelines for cases involving allegations of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
Global News has agreed to change Alari’s name because of fears she could be harmed if her appeal is denied and she is returned to Nigeria.
Questions were ‘construed’ as insensitive
In its original response to questions about Alari’s case, the IRB said Rozenszajn understood that his questions to Alari were “construed” as being insensitive.
The board also said he would be required to undertake additional training.
However, when asked why this training was necessary if Rozenszajn’s questions were only construed as being insensitive, the board backtracked, saying Thursday that his comments were, in fact, insensitive.
The board would not say if Rozenszajn will continue hearing cases while its internal review process is completed, nor would it say if he will be allowed to make decisions in cases he has already heard, including any claims involving gender-based violence.
“The board will not comment on internal matters,” Guibert-Wolff said.
Despite its reversal, the board’s initial response has drawn criticism for failing to acknowledge any wrongdoing and because it appeared to place responsibility for Rozenszajn’s questions being “insensitive” upon Alari.
“I’m disappointed in the IRB,” said Farrah Khan, an expert in domestic abuse and a member of the federal government’s advisory committee on gender-based violence.
Khan says the IRB made a commitment to protecting claimants and to ensuring that allegations of domestic abuse and sexual violence are treated with extreme sensitivity.
Yet, when a member of the board was accused of asking questions that Khan says were “arbitrarily cruel” and objectively insensitive, the board’s first response was to blame the claimant for her interpretation of these questions.
“An appropriate response is to be accountable,” she said.
While she thinks the board made the right decision by launching a review into Rozenszajn’s conduct – adding that this should have been the board’s first reaction – she worries that the IRB may not be doing enough to train its members to recognize the signs of severe trauma and to properly handle cases involving allegations of sexual assault and domestic abuse.
She also says the board needs to be accountable for its initial response to Alari’s case and the message it sends to other women who face gender-based persecution and are in need of Canada’s protection.
“You put if off and say misconstrued and kind of blow it off, instead of recognizing that maybe you have a problem across the board,” she said.
“Sometimes we make it about one bad apple and I don’t think it’s just one bad apple.”
Lawyer ‘prepares’ clients for insensitive questions
In its response Thursday, the IRB said it is committed to making sure all refugee judges are appropriately trained on the board’s guidelines, code of conduct, ethics and values.
The IRB also says adjudicators are expected to be cognizant of how their conduct affects claimants, particularly when dealing with asylum seekers who may be living with extremely difficult circumstances.
Refugee judges are also monitored after they are hired. Their decisions can be reviewed by supervisors and they are expected to participate in post-training exercises, including reviewing cases that the IRB’s appeal division or the Federal Court have overturned because of errors.
But concerns about insensitivity at the board are not isolated to a single case or to a single judge.
Nastaran Roushan, a Toronto immigration lawyer who routinely appears before the IRB, says “problematic” and “insensitive” questioning of claimants during hearings remains a major concern for refugee advocates in Canada.
While she thinks the majority of refugee judges behave professionally and approach cases with the sensitivity that’s required, she says lawyers are hesitant to speak out when problems arise because of fears that any complaints they make could affect future clients if the same judge is assigned to a different case.
“Whenever we prepare our clients for a hearing, and especially when intimate partner violence is involved, we have to tell them that they might be in front of a board member who is insensitive,” Roushan said.
The board, meanwhile, says there should be “no doubt” about the competence and professionalism of its members.
While the IRB has acknowledged that some judges make errors and do not always adhere to the board’s guidelines or code of conduct, it says the overwhelming majority of decision-makers follow the rules and assess claims fairly.
The board also says that it conducts regular reviews of its guidelines and that it recently strengthened its process for making formal complaints against refugee judges.