While Kenneth* has spent years running from the threat of death, a flurry of advocacy in a 72-hour span this week may have saved his life.
Kenneth, who says his asylum claim was denied in the United States, was pulled off a plane set to take off for Cameroon Tuesday — where he believes he would be executed for his participation in a protest — after Canada Border Services Agency officials agreed to hear his case.
Megan Walker, an advocate best known as the head of the London Abused Women’s Centre in London, Ont., heard about Kenneth’s situation through her sister in the U.K., who had heard about Kenneth’s story from a friend in Alabama.
“They were trying to help a young man from Cameroon who had been charged with hostilities against the fatherland, which is really protesting against the government,” Walker explained.
“This call came to me on Saturday and my sister said, ‘can you help?'”
Walker then reached out to Ryan Gauss, the director of operations and personnel for London North Centre MP Peter Fragiskatos.
“Ryan then called me,” Fragiskatos told Global News, saying his engagement began from there with him reaching out to Public Safety Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
He also relied on help from his assistant Josh Chadwick, who is well-versed in immigration issues.
“Things seemed to align in ways I have not come across before in my five plus years of being a member of parliament.”
While Fragiskatos would not comment further, Walker’s spouse and retired London Free Press journalist Morris Dalla Costa tweeted that a meeting is scheduled at the Peace Bridge connecting Fort Erie, Ontario and Buffalo, New York on October 30.
Kenneth’s journey to North America started in 2017.
Cameroon is divided along lines created during colonialism by European powers and was first ruled by Germans and then divided among the French and British. As a result, there are English- and French-speaking regions, with English speakers estimated at about 20 per cent of the population.
In 2017, longstanding tensions between the country’s English-speaking minority and French-speaking majority were intensifying following the 2016 decision imposing the use of French in schools and in the courts, according to a Nov. 10, 2017 report from BBC News.
In a letter from Kenneth shared by Walker, the 29-year-old says he took part in a peaceful protest on Oct. 1, 2017 in Cameroon.
“Afterwards, a government official came to my village looking for me. The village chief warned me and told me I should leave, so I hid in the bush for several months,” he wrote.
Kenneth says that when he returned, government forces raped his sister, beat him, and took him to jail where he was detained for two weeks without charges.
During transport to a central prison, he and others managed to escape. He learned through his sister that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for political crimes and so he fled the country.
“Since then, human rights abuses and the conflict between the government of Cameroon and the minority have worsened,” he said.
“I fear that I will be imprisoned and tortured if I am returned to Cameroon and executed.”
A Washington Post article from Feb. 5, 2019 suggested the country was on the brink of civil war as the government claimed armed English-speaking separatists “terrorized civilians and attacked government forces” forcing them to retaliate.
Siobhán O’Grady reported at the time that “in more than a dozen interviews, English speakers displaced by military raids on their villages recounted how Cameroonian troops opened fire on unarmed civilians and burned down their homes.”
As of Dec. 31, 2019, Amnesty International reported roughly 700,000 people were internally displaced in the English-spreaking regions of Cameroon.
Kenneth entered the United States on Sept. 16, 2018 and requested asylum, but says he was incarcerated by ICE and his claim was denied and he was scheduled to be deported.
Global News reached out to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for comment but was told USCIS “does not comment on specific cases, nor can we confirm whether someone has applied for asylum, as that is protected information.”
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement — ruled unconstitutional by a federal court this past July, a ruling the government is appealing — Canada and the U.S. recognize each other as safe places for potential refugees to seek protection.
It means Canada can turn back asylum seekers who arrive at land ports of entry along the Canada-U.S. border on the basis they must pursue their claims in the U.S., the country where they first arrived.
However, there are a select few exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement, including one that will allow Kenneth to have his case heard by CBSA.
“That is something called the Public Interest Exemption. When fears of execution exist, that exemption can kick in. And it has here.”
Even with the CBSA agreeing to a meeting, Kenneth’s future in Canada is far from certain.
The path from asylum seeker to refugee to permanent resident is several years long, with checkpoints along the way.
If CBSA decides that his case has merit, it will be referred to the Immigration Refugee Board. It’ll likely take about two years before the IRB hearing, at which the board makes a determination on refugee status.
“If the IRB recognizes him as a genuine refugee then the process moves toward permanent residency, but there again it is another two-year wait,” Fragiskatos explained.
He also noted that if the IRB denies a refugee claim, there is an appeal process available. If the CBSA denies an asylum claim, the claimant is deported.
However, if the CBSA agrees the case is worth looking into further, then Kenneth would be able to enter Canada and have access to social assistance, education, health, a work permit, and other supports.
“I really think that we need to continue as much as possible in Canada to be an example to the rest of the world. Refugees make a contribution,” he stressed.
“We have to allow for a place for compassion in our public policy, and all too often we’re seeing well-established democracies — let me put it that way — that are forgetting that fact. So I was glad to work on this case.”
Fragiskatos says he plans to stay involved in the case as it moves through the system though he stressed that he cannot intervene in the process and that CBSA officials are professional, neutral public servants who will look at this objectively.
“I’ve never met (Kenneth), but again, I put myself in his shoes, I can’t begin to imagine some of the difficulties and challenges and trials that he’s been through.
“With that in mind, I’m that much more interested in seeing a positive resolution to this issue, one that allows him to begin a life in Canada.”
*980 CFPL is not publishing Kenneth’s full name in order to protect the identity of his family.
— with files from The Canadian Press’ Jim Bronskill and The Associated Press’ Edith M. Lederer.