By March this year, it will be three years since Gbenga Akinkunmi began scrambling to be granted asylum in Canada, based on unsubstantiated claim that almost every non-state actor in Nigeria was after his life and those of his family members.
In court documents reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Akinkunmi claimed he fled from his home in Plateau State, north-central Nigeria, while his wife and two children fled elsewhere after members of the terrorist Boko Haram sect came after him for challenging herders who encroached on his property. He claimed that before that incident, he had survived two earlier attacks from the herders.
In Warri where he claimed he initially fled to, he said he was again kidnapped by Niger Delta militants and that he only escaped after paying a part of the ransom the abductors demanded.
Mr Akinkunmi said he later fled to New York on March 11, 2018, using a valid U.S. visa. The next day, he entered Canada and made a refugee claim the next year before the Canadian Refugee Protection Division (RPD), claiming he narrowly escaped being killed by militias in Nigeria.
His claim was rejected by immigration authorities, with the jury saying he could have embraced an internal flight alternative (IFA) in neighbouring Benin City if Plateau and Warri were unsafe. This means he should have sought refuge in another city in Nigeria rather than fleeing to Canada.
Benin City is 96.7 kilometres away from Warri and can be reached by car in about two hours. According to the transportation measurement platform, travel math, the total flight duration between airports in the two cities is 37 minutes.
After his application was rejected, Mr Akinkunmi petitioned the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD), arguing that Warri was too close to Benin and that deadly militants could be on his trail there. In Benin, he said, his six-year-old daughter risked forced genital mutilation. His appeal was dismissed.
With deportation imminent, last July, he sought the review of the verdict before the Federal Court of Canada. Again, his case was rejected.
“There was no credible evidence to establish, on a balance of probabilities,” Justice Walker ruled, “that Mr Akinkunmi and his wife and daughter had been persecuted or threatened by his family or that the feared family members had been able to locate them since 2017.”
Like Mr Akinkunmi, Prince Mctony Aire, 33, could also not convince authorities to grant him asylum in Canada. He had told a panel there that Islamic extremists and security forces in Nigeria were after him because he was bisexual. He claimed he was “detained, tortured and issued death threats” in Zaria, north-western Nigeria, before fleeing to Canada.
His case was dismissed by Justice von Finckenstein, who doubted his narratives and upheld a decision that the claimant faced less risk if he relocated to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, which is 958 kilometres away from Zaria and can be reached by road in 12 hours and by air in an hour 22 minutes.
Analysing the Canada rush
The immigration cases involving Messrs Akinkunmi and Aire are among those concerning 300 Nigerians that we accessed and reviewed.
Documents detailing the cases are held by the Federal Court of Canada (FCC) and at least 5,000 pages of them were analysed by PREMIUM TIMES. They revealed what Nigerians are telling Canadian immigration authorities to claim asylum in the North American country.
This newspaper’s yearlong examination of the immigration documents showed a striking pattern of claims made by the Nigerian applicants. Nigerians seeking residency in Canada have more than tripled since 2015 when it rose from about 4,000 to nearly 13,000 in 2019.
A 2020 survey conducted by the Africa Polling Institute (API), a non-profit research think-tank, found the key “push factors” for the exodus of Nigerian immigrants to Canada to be due to Nigeria’s weak economy, heightened insecurity, perceived poor governance and the huge appetites for foreign degrees by citizens.
While these may be the underlying reasons for the exodus to Canada, some prospective Nigerian asylees sometimes make up stories about their personal situations and state of affairs in their country to convince authorities to grant them stay in one of the world’s most developed countries.
In the documents we reviewed, majority of the asylum seekers, 270, gave a single reason for wanting to leave Nigeria. The remaining 30 applicants gave more than one reason.
Majority of the claimants, 52, or 19 per cent, claimed they needed to escape persecution due to their sexual orientation.
“This positions Nigeria as a country where sexual rights are not considered as human rights, and it opens spaces for conversation on the rights of the people in the LGBTQ communities,” Kudus Adebayo, a research fellow on diaspora and transnational studies at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“The country becomes a place where people can be forced out of their communities, separated from their families and lives because of their sexual orientation,” he added.
The Nigerian government outlawed same-sex relationships in 2014. The law stipulates up to 10 years jail term for belonging to a gay rights group and up to 14 years imprisonment for engaging in homosexual activities.
“Having a swelling asylum plea linked to the LGBTQ community is not shocking at all. The Nigerian state, with the anti same-sex law, and the general negative attitude towards non-heterosexual citizens, means that some people are constantly at the risk of losing their freedoms and lives,” Mr Adebayo said.
Alerted by this in 2017, Legal Aid Ontario which provides legal services for low-income people said it found an “unusual” pattern in sexual orientation claims by Nigerian asylees in Canada, a worrying trend it said may sometimes be fabricated.
“It galls me because of the potential impact that it could have on the refugee system and the Canadian public’s perception of refugee claimants and refugees in a very vulnerable time globally,” Jawad Kassab, who leads the agency’s refugee and immigration programme, said. The agency declined comments on its latest position.
Mr Adebayo, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, did not rule out the possibility of “an industry of emigration built around the narrative of sexuality and persecution of those in the LGBTQ community.”
“Those making money off the emigration economy would package travels around possible false claims of sexual persecution. This trend will surely make it difficult for the receiving states, that is Canada and others, to determine which claim should be granted and those to be rejected,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
When Legal Aid Ontario suggested in a letter that lawyers may be coaching clients to fabricate their stories, Richard Odeleye, an immigration lawyer, described the accusation as “insulting” and “discriminatory.”
“It’s almost like a war zone for homosexuals,” Mr Odeleye said of Nigeria to CBC News. “You cannot expect people to put up with that, and they have to leave.”
Other immigrants said they were fleeing Nigeria due to forced female genital mutilation (FGM) and cultural rituals, political and religious persecution, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), insecurity, attacks from militia and threat to life, domestic violence, socio-economic and family reasons.
The allure of Canada
Second only to Russia by land size, Canada’s total land area of approximately 3.9 million square miles (10 million square km) means it is about 11 times the size of Nigeria, or accounts for roughly the northern two-fifths of the continent of North America, or about half the size of South America.
But despite this spaciality sprawling beneath the grandeur of its arctic frozen tundra and archipelago, the bilingual country (English and French) is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.
Nearly 80 per cent of Canada’s 38 million population live within 93 miles (150 kilometers) of the Canada-United States border, leaving a vast swathe of the nation’s territory unoccupied. Senior citizens outnumber children too.
Pressed by the push to expand its labour force by offsetting its aging population, Canada started an Express Entry programme in 2015, offering successful skilled workers permanent residency permits. This “pull factor” attracted tons of migrants.
In a quest for upward mobility, more than 7 in 10 Nigerians (73 per cent) would relocate abroad with their family members if they had an opportunity, the 2021 Nigeria Social Cohesion Survey published by API found.
This explains why Nigerians are enamoured of the Great White North as the exodus to the North American country has shown no sign of slowing down.
For the fifth year running, more Nigerians emigrated to Canada than the year before and the number of Nigerians granted permanent residency has more than tripled since 2015, rising from 4,090 to peak at 12,600 in 2019, before COVID-19 slowed it.
The spokesperson of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Abdur-Rahman Balogun, said what informed this “may be Canadian immigration policy.”
Permanent residence permit issued to Nigerians from 2015.This growth rate outstrips India, China and Philippines, Canada’s top three sources of immigrants over the last five years.
“Exiting the country is a survival strategy for millions (of Nigerians), and this is clear from what we can call the ‘Japa Movement’ of the last few years,” Mr Adebayo said, adding that “exodus of any category of the population means that a country loses human resources to the receiving countries.”
Still, Mr Balogun said the insatiable crave by Nigerians to migrate abroad is not a case of brain drain but rather “brain gain (and) investment opportunities.”
“We are harvesting our human resources for national development. Hence our initiative on Nigeria diaspora investment summit, Door of Return, National Diaspora Day on every July 25 and celebration of our diaspora icons as done in September. Over 600 of them were celebrated across various fields and sectors,” he said, downplaying the potential collapse of the nation’s skilled population and shrinking middle-class.
The head of public affairs at the High Commission of Canada in Nigeria, Oluwa-Demilade Kosemani, was on leave when he was contacted for comments. He promised to revert as soon as he could.
Aminat, 19, accompanied by her mother, Agnes, and her father, Ademola Adeniji-Adele, entered Canada on August 30, 2015 on a student visa.
The following year her father, the son of the 20th Oba of Lagos and former commissioner for youth, sports and social development, died, leaving behind a treasure trove which included an estate but without a will.
Agnes and her daughter later sought asylum in Canada claiming that the administrator of Mr Adeniji-Adele’s estate insisted on not paying the family its due except Aminat returns to Nigeria, marries his friend’s son, denounces Christianity, and returns to Islam, court transcripts read.
Agnes claimed the executor paid for her trip to Canada to bring Aminat back to Nigeria, the documents showed. Instead, on June 7, 2017 Agnes took her son, Musediku, 17, with her to Canada and refused to return to Nigeria.
“The executor has ceased to fund Aminat’s education, and has cut off Agnes’ monthly allowance from her husband’s estate,” the asylum seekers told the court.
But the Federal Court of Canada (FCC), which reviewed earlier decisions denying Agnes and her children asylum, said the applicants failed to justify their claims that they would be in danger in all parts of Nigeria if they returned to the country. The court specifically said the applicants could relocate from Lagos to either Port Harcourt or Abuja where they would not be at risk.
“Furthermore, some of the news reports submitted by the applicants were irrelevant to their personal circumstances,” the court ruled. “One example was a CNN World article that described women who were arrested in Abuja and assaulted by the police based on the suspicion they were working as prostitutes.
“Others concerned challenges encountered by the population in general, such as homelessness, unemployment, pollution and unsafe drinking water. These problems were said to be particularly severe for those who are impoverished or lack family connections. However, by their own account the Applicants are members of a wealthy and distinguished family, most of whose members continue to be well disposed towards them.
“The Applicants adduced no evidence to substantiate their assertion that the Executor would have access to government or corporate databases, would be able to trace them through their mobile telephone SIM cards, and would therefore be able to locate them in the Internal Flight Alternatives, IFAs (other Nigerian cities). There was no evidence of the extent of public awareness of the Applicants’ surname outside Lagos.
“The onus was on the Applicants to demonstrate that the proposed IFAs were unsuitable. They were unable to meet this high threshold. The Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) found that the Applicants have a comparatively high level of education and supportive relatives in Nigeria, including the Applicant children’s numerous adult half-siblings. The Applicants speak English, which is Nigeria’s official language and is widely used in both Port Harcourt and Abuja. The Applicants have not demonstrated that any of these findings by the RAD were unreasonable.
“The RAD’s reasoning is transparent and intelligible. There was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Applicants will not have access to housing and clean drinking water in the IFAs, be unable to find employment, or be denied their family’s support.”
The FCC archives the court details of asylees on its portal. So, PREMIUM TIMES conducted a yearlong analysis of a third of the over 900 court transcripts of Nigerians seeking asylum in Canada, mining details of their cases and inputting them into a spreadsheet.
The portal randomly sorts the cases by “relevance” and “date.” We sorted by “relevance” which returned all-encompassing randomness in terms of demography, date of, and reason for migration.
In all, our data captured about a third of all the immigration cases of Nigerians the FCC has published as of December 2021. The cases ranged from individual to joint applications, usually families.
It represents the largest collection and publication of private data on the immigration claims made by Nigerians seeking refugee status in the Great White North and the outcome of their applications.
While more than two-thirds of the 300 cases analysed arrived in Canada directly from Nigeria — usually on private visits, a stopover or via irregular border crossing — others entered from outside Nigeria, a majority of them from the U.S. and Europe.
In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, “to those fleeing persecution, terror (and) war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” Some believe that comment triggered an unprecedented surge in asylum applications in the country.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
Even though he added, “you will not be at an advantage if you choose to enter Canada irregularly. You must follow the rules and there are many,” it did not deter the rise in the influx.
At least 25 of the 300 cases analysed entered Canada that year, the highest recorded in a single year.
In his own application for asylum, 47-year-old Port Harcourt-based poultry farmer, Edirin Richard Enamejewa, claimed he was accused of being a member of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) while visiting Aba, southeast Nigeria, for business. He said he was arrested, beaten and detained by the police for a week.
He claimed he was released on bail after paying a bribe and was instructed to report to the police station every two weeks, an obligation he continued to meet. He said the police, however, kept threatening him with arrest and at a point forced him to pay a further bribe.
With the police and the military still on his trail, he jumped bail in October 2017 when he went on vacation in Canada. There, he made a claim for refugee protection but it was rejected. In a decision dated November 26, 2018, the RPD rejected the applicant’s claim because it found that he was not credible. The applicant subsequently appealed the RPD’s decision to the RAD.
In its verdict dated September 6, 2019, the RAD confirmed the RPD’s decision and rejected the applicant’s claim for refugee protection.
“Upon appeal to the RAD, the Applicant claimed that three policemen entered the Applicant’s farm on November 23, 2018 and asked the employees about the Applicant’s whereabouts,” court document said. “When the employees informed the police that they did not know where the Applicant was located or how to contact him, the police assaulted one of the employees.
“The Applicant submitted evidence to corroborate the November 23, 2018 police attack, but the RAD found that all of the Applicant’s new evidence was inadmissible and accordingly dismissed his request for an oral hearing. On the merits of the Applicant’s claim, the RAD held that the Applicant was not credible. The RAD found that the Applicant failed to adequately explain how he could miss multiple appointments with the police without facing consequences, and why he did not attempt to clear his name of the accusation that he was an IPOB member.”
He then took the case to the Federal Court of Canada for judicial review of the RAD’s decision. On April 12, 2021, Justice Ahmed of the FCC overturned the judgements, returning the matter “for redetermination by a differently constituted panel.” The judge faulted the RAD for unreasonably refusing to admit the new evidence submitted by the Applicant upon appeal.
Despite citing a similar reason as Mr Enamejewa, Douglas Eluomuno Chinwuba was not as lucky upon appeals after he filed an inland claim for refugee protection a month after his study permit application was denied in May 201.
Mr Chinwuba, a CEO of a company in Nigeria, was, in July 2015, granted a visitor’s visa to Canada. Between June and September 2016, he travelled to Canada to help his son who was enrolled at Ryerson University. In January 2017, the applicant again traveled to Canada and in February 2017 was himself accepted into Humber College in Canada. In May 2017, his application for a study permit was denied.
“In June 2017, the Applicant filed an inland claim for refugee protection alleging fear of persecution by the Directorate of State Security (DSS) and other security agents in Nigeria due to his political opinions and for being a suspected supporter of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) organization,” court document said of Mr Chinwuba’s case. “He claims to have been arrested, beaten, and detained by the DSS in October 2016 for a week until his lawyer provided proof that he had no connection with the IPOB.”
Mr Chinwuba claimed SSS agents in Nigeria continued to search for him and were asking his wife about his whereabouts. The Refugee Protection Division rejected his claim on October 24, 2017, on the basis of credibility. He appealed the decision but he lost, with the Refugee Appeal Division saying it found the Applicant’s responses to the RPD’s questions asking him to elaborate on his allegations as vague.
“The RAD agreed that the RPD’s findings that the Applicant’s allegations based upon his perceived involvement with the IPOB were inconsistent, and the RAD found no error in the RPD’s negative credibility findings in this regard,” court documents say. “Regarding the other documentary evidence that was considered by the RPD, the RAD agreed that there were clear irregularities and inconsistencies with these documents that raised concerns about the Applicant’s overall truthfulness and concerns about the reliability of his documentation.”
Mr Chinwuba then sought judicial review of the verdict at the Federal Court of Canada. But in a March 13, 2019 judgment, Madam Justice Ann Marie McDonald agreed with the RAD and RPD the applicant lacked credibility and in the absence of independent and credible documentary evidence, rejected the request for judicial review.
PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation revealed a confluence of reasons Nigerian gave for fleeing from their country. The reasons were categorised into 13.
They ranged from those who said they fled because of the persecution related to sexual orientation, religion, political opinions as well as violence from Boko Haram, herders, secessionists and cultists.
Of the 300 cases analysed, 270 cited one reason for fleeing. 28 gave two reasons. Others gave three.
Fifty-two (52) applicants (19.3 per cent) sought refuge because they were allegedly persecuted for their sexual orientation. Thirty-seven (37) said they they left Nigeria because of forced Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (13.7 per cent). Another 32 (11.9 per cent) said political persecution drove them away from home. About 22 (8.1 per cent) cited sexual based violence as reason for seeking asylum while 24 (8.9 per cent) claimed they no longer feel secure in Nigeria due to insecurity.
At least 19 asylum seekers said their lives were threatened by militias. Another 13 (4.8 per cent) claimed they suffered religious persecution, cultural rituals and socio-economic suppression. Domestic violence was cited by 12 (4.4 per cent) applicants. Those seeking asylum to enable them obtain foreign degrees were 11 (4.1 per cent) while 10 applicants (3.7 per cent) gave family reason for wanting protection in Canada.
In all, sexual orientation was cited as reason 57 times, FGM 56 times, political persecution 34, SGBV 30, insecurity 28, militia and threat to life 20, religious persecution 20, cultural rituals 17, domestic violence 16, socio-economic 15, family reason 13, studies 11, residency permit 11, healthcare 8.
Officials have also grown suspicious of the claims and they have tightened measures to determine what story to believe and those to reject.
As a result, 198 (66 per cent) of the cases considered were dismissed while the remaining 102 were admitted for reconsideration.
For those whose cases were dismissed, it is usually because the court believes their stories were not credible or have internal flight alternatives like Benin City as was the case of Mr Akinkunmi, or Port Harcourt and Abuja as was for the Adeniji-Adeles.
Ehiosun Elvis Omijie, 26, a 2015 economics graduate of Ambrose Alli University, was one of those whose case was granted.
Despite submitting proof of full tuition payment of $16,084 CAD having been admitted to study applied business administration at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology [NAIT], a visa officer turned down his student visa request.
The official wondered “why (the) applicant would incur costs of relocating to Canada in order to undertake study at the same academic level to that already completed.”
Upon appeal, Justice Pentney said the visa officer’s decision was “unreasonable… and unintelligible… because there is no explanation” for the officer’s conclusion.
Suspicious that some Nigerian applicants were making up stories, Canadian authorities have continued to tighten the procedures for immigration admittance. On December 20, 2021, Justice Andrew D. Little of the Federal Court of Canada gave a judgment dismissing claims by a family of five which claimed Fulani herders were after their lives.
The applicants were Chiyem Stephen Igwe, his spouse Agatha Ndudi Igwe, and their two sons, Jerome and Charles. They are from Akumazi in Delta State, south-south Nigeria. The adult applicants also have a daughter, Isioma Hilary, who was a baby and did not have a passport when the applicants fled to Canada. She remained in Nigeria in the care of a relative.
Mr Igwe holds an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Lagos. He claimed he was employed for many years at a shipping company. But that in October 2017, he changed careers and began farming on his ancestral farmlands in Delta State.
He said in early 2018, he came into conflict with Fulani herdsmen. He claimed several herdsmen led their cattle to graze on his land and declined to leave. Mr Igwe said he contacted local police and filed a report about the trespass, but that the police refused to assist. He said he and several other farmers then resolved to confront the herdsmen on their own. In Mr Igwe’s words, they formed a “vigilante” group.
Mr Igwe further told Canadian authorities that on February 2, 2018, he led the vigilante group and apprehended four herdsmen on a nearby farm. He said his team took the herdsmen into custody and presented them at the local police station. He claimed that within a few hours, the police released the herdsmen, despite the citizen’s arrests and the applicant’s previously filed report.
At about 10 p.m. on the same night, he said he received a threatening phone call. He recognised the caller’s voice as belonging to the leader of the local herdsmen, Musa Danladi. The caller, he said, threatened to kill him and the other group members in retaliation for the citizen’s arrests. He claimed the caller vowed the herdsmen would find the group members even if they fled from Akumazi. Mr Igwe said he reported the phone call to police.
Mr Igwe said early on February 4, 2018, someone set fire to his family compound. Mr Igwe claimed he awoke at 3:00 a.m. to a neighbour shouting “fire.” As he ran outside, he heard gunshots and shouting in the language spoken by the Fulani herdsmen. He glimpsed the arsonists fleeing on motorbike, but did not get a good look at them. Mr Igwe said he reported the event to police the next morning. The police agreed to look into the matter.
The applicant said after the fire, he feared for his safety and decided not to return to the farm. He joined the rest of his family in Lagos. He learned new information confirming that the fire had been set by the same herdsmen he and the other farmers had arrested. Mr Igwe claimed he tried to lodge a complaint with the Lagos police about the fire, but they referred him back to the local police in Akumazi.
Mr Igwe said on August 20, 2018, three men attacked his home in Lagos and set fire to their electric generator. In his Basis of Claim form, the applicant claimed he caught sight of one of the attackers while he was fleeing the home in Lagos, and recognised him to be Musa Danladi, the leader of the herders in his native home in Delta. He said his family fled to a local hotel for safety, where they remained until September 14, 2018, when they left Nigeria for the United States. On September 18, 2018, the family crossed the border from the United States to Canada irregularly and had since then been seeking asylum.
But the Canadian immigration authorities apparently did not buy his narrative. From the Refugee Protection Department to the Refugee Appeal Department and to the Federal Court of Canada where he took his case at different times, he was simply told to seek refuge in any other Nigerian city if he and his family feel unsafe in Lagos and Delta.
His next steps in the desperate push for residency in Canada remain unclear. And so are the fates of several others in his shoes.
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