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‘Please help me’: Okanagan woman issues desperate appeal as deportation looms

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An OK Falls woman says she's exhausted almost all legal avenues and will be deported to her home country of South Africa next month. The failed refugee claimant says she fears for her life if she were to return. As Shelby Thom reports, Lea Thorne says she is making a last ditch, desperate appeal to the federal government – Jan 12, 2021

An Okanagan Falls woman said she’s exhausted almost all legal avenues and will be deported to her home country of South Africa next month.

Lea Thorne, a failed refugee claimant, said she fears for her life if she were to return.

“That fear of rape and death will never leave me,” she told Global News on Monday.

Thorne said she is making a last-ditch, desperate appeal to the federal government.

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

“Please grant us our freedom, grant us our peace,” she said, referring to all South African women seeking refuge in Canada.

“We are pleading for help, please help me.”

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Thorne, a South African citizen, travelled to the Okanagan on a visitor’s visa in 2013 — and never left.

A sexual assault survivor, she applied for refugee protection.

“I was raped in 1987,” the 52-year-old said. “The fear that if it happened once, then it can happen again because I am a woman.”

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

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. Despite violence prevention initiatives, the division said, “the adequacy of the government’s response to rape is extremely dubious.”

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

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 by 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 systematic persecution.

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“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 stated.

Thorne said she was devastated, but took her fight to the courts.

In July, however, a federal judge dismissed her application for judicial review of RAD’s decision.

Read more: North Okanagan man fighting deportation

Immigration experts said there are hurdles for refugee protection claimants from South Africa because the country offers state protection.

“In a democracy, which South Africa is, they’ve got court systems and processes that look a lot like Canada’s. I think the refugee board is often reluctant to find that the police there are not capable of protecting their citizens,” said immigration lawyer Erica Olmstead, who is not connected to the case, but reviewed documents for Global News.

“The refugee board accepted that she was a credible witness, that she had valid reasons for being subjectively afraid, and there wasn’t a dispute about that,” Olmstead said.

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“It really was her ability to prove this forward-looking target or that the police wouldn’t protect her in the future which is a difficult standard to meet for refugee claimants.”

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Olmstead said two other possible avenues are that her Canadian partner could sponsor her, or she could submit an application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

But time is running out, and as of now, Thorne will be deported in mid-February.

She is making a desperate appeal to the federal government — not only for herself, she said, but on behalf of all South African women seeking refuge in Canada.

“All I am asking is to put South African women on the list of refugees.”