VANCOUVER — Attia Elserfy was expecting a second lease on life when he escaped Egypt with his family, landing in Vancouver in October 2018.
But the Elserfys say their lives are in limbo because the Canada Border Services Agency challenged both Attia and his wife's admissibility as refugees over their ties to a political party outlawed by the Egyptian government.
The Elserfys took part in a hearing in November 2021, but have not heard from immigration officials since, unable to work, they have had to resort to welfare after the Egyptian government froze their assets.
"It's making me feel crazy, because it's not the democratic Canada that I expected," Elserfy said in an interview through an Arabic interpreter. "It makes me feel like I'm still living under the authoritarian regime that I escaped from."
Elserfy and other Egyptian asylum seekers spoke Monday alongside New Democrat MP Don Davies at his constituency office in Vancouver, decrying the CBSA's treatment of recent claimants affiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party and the potential denial of their refugee bids.
Members of the Egyptian community protested outside in support of the families.
Five families from Egypt claim the CBSA's actions are fuelled by "Islamophobia" and information provided by the Egyptian government, which is leading Canada to withhold protection and causing severe "distress and trauma."
Davies said at the press conference at his office that the CBSA was being deeply unfair, because it "misuses" the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to deny protection "based solely" on applicants' links to a political party.
Davies said he was particularly appalled that this was happening to Elserfy, who was a labour movement leader in Egypt whom Davies described as an "advocate for democracy" in that country.
"We are a G7 country," Davies said. "We are a country of immigrants and refugees. It's unacceptable that people have to wait five years to have a decision. You can see the destructive impact that this has on families as everything in their life is put on hold."
In a written statement, the CBSA said that while it doesn't comment on specific cases over privacy concerns, it does have the legal obligation to remove foreign nationals who are inadmissible.
The process for determining inadmissibility begins with a report by an officer who believes the foreign national should not stay in Canada and those facts go to a decision-maker.
An admissibility hearing would then determine whether to issue a removal order, it said in the statement.
The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act allows for Canada to deem a refugee applicant inadmissible if there are reasonable grounds to believe the individual may have been "engaging in an act of subversion against a democratic government, institution or process as they are understood in Canada" or in terrorism.
The Freedom and Justice Party was dissolved by an Egyptian court in 2014 for the party's affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's oldest Islamist movement.
In 2013, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was defence minister and commander of Egypt's military when he led the overthrow of then-president Mohamed Morsi, who was a member of both the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sissi's government has since labelled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and cracked down heavily on its members. Its members were among 14 activists sentenced to prison in March, after what Amnesty International said was the violation to their rights to a fair trial.
Elserfy said he was asked to join the Freedom and Justice Party in his role as a labour activist, and he was not active in the party.
He said Egyptian authorities tried to force him to endorse Sissi's government in 2013, and tried to arrest him several times after he refused,forcing the family to evade authorities in Egypt several times before moving to Canada.
Elserfy said he received preliminary approval for his refugee status application in March 2019, when a CBSA officer intervened and conducted an interview.
"His whole discussion was about (my) membership in the Freedom and Justice Party and trying to inquire about the relationship between the party and the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
The CBSA agent then challenged Elserfy and his wife's admissibility in November 2019 and June 2021, respectively. Elserfy said they have received no updates on their status since the last hearing on the case in November 2021.
Elserfy's three children did gain refugee status in March 2022, but the CBSA vetting process was so intense that one child developed suicidal thoughts, he said.
"If the CBSA actions result in one of my children committing suicide, this will be on you," Elserfy said, addressing his comments to federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino. "I am here today with my family to say, enough is enough."
Elserfy also has two adult sons in Turkey who face similar uncertainties, as their father cannot bring them to Canada without refugee status. They have not been able to meet in person since 2018.
"Just seeing my family's lives falling apart, I don't know what to do for them anymore," Elserfy said. "I personally am under so much financial and mental health pressures that it has become unbearable."
Davies said he has submitted letters to both the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada and Mendicino's office on the issue.
"The (refugee board) has a responsibility to ensure that refugees who come to the country seeking protection are treated with dignity and respect," Davies said in his letter to Mendicino. "This includes ensuring that they are not subjected to prolonged periods of uncertainty and insecurity, which can have a devastating impact on their mental health and well-being."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2023.
Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press