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Deported family of refugee claimants allowed back into Canada

The Tabaj family was deported in 2009, but the deportation order was overruled, allowing a return to Toronto on Sept. 22, 2011.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When Arjan Tabaj returned to Toronto, he was handed a Canadian flag. He kissed it, and then his twin five-year-old boys kissed it too. "I love Canada. It's the best country," the 41-year-old Albanian exclaimed again and again.

He was flanked by his wife, the twins and his 12-year-old daughter. He was also surrounded a battery of television cameras on hand on to document the moment. After all, it's not every day that a family of refugee claimants gets un-deported.

Two years ago, the family of failed asylum seekers were sent back to their native Albania. Canadian officials had rejected the parents' refugee claim that their membership in a political party led assassins in their homeland to try to kill them.

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On Aug. 30, a Federal Court judge overturned the government's deportation order on a point of procedure. Officials were ordered to allow the Tabajs back into Canada to try again for refugee status.

Stark reversals like that are "rarer than hen's teeth," according to immigration lawyers. "There's only one other case I'm aware of like this," said Lorne Waldman, a leading immigration lawyer. "It's quite clear that the court was extremely unhappy and saw this as an exceptional case that warranted urgent action."

Remarking how much the children had grown in the two years since he had last seen them, Boris Wrzesnewskyj, a former Liberal MP greeted the family warmly at Pearson airport on Thursday. As he shepherded their return, he pulled aside the reporters he had invited to the airport to tell them what he felt this case was really about – a judicial rebuke to the enforcement practices of Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

"The minister knew the file and made the decision to deport anyway," said Mr. Wrzesnewskyj, who lost his Etobicoke riding by 26 votes to the Tories last spring. "I couldn't turn my back on a family knowing that, at some point in time, there could be a bullet waiting for any one of them."

A spokeswoman for the minister declined to say much in response. "It would be impossible to write a balanced and accurate story about this very complicated file without obtaining all necessary information," Candice Malcolm told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail.

At the airport Thursday, Mr. Tabaj declined to go into specifics about the attempts on his life he says he faced in Albania. "I'm here to live a new life," he said. "I don't want to think about the past any more." Maria, his 12-year-old daughter said she was looking forward to rejoining her Toronto schoolmates – she had hated spending the past two years in Albania. "It's horrible that country. I didn't like it at all. No freedom. It's boring," she said.

Some publicly available court documents reveal the details of the case, and illustrate the difficulty refugee officials can have in trying to sort out the bogus claims from the bona fide.

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From 1999 to 2009, the Tabajs lived in Canada pursuing their asylum bid. But adjudicators found the "parents were not credible witnesses" and their claims of being targeted for their political beliefs rang especially hollow. A tribunal even found the family submitted a "fraudulent" Albanian newspaper article to buttress Mr. Tabaj's claim that he was shot in the leg by secret-service assassins.

More sympathetic to the family was Mr. Wrzesnewskyj, who believes Canadian officials should "err on the side of caution" when there is even a small chance of persecution overseas. After meeting the family four years ago, he paid their lawyers and legal fees out of his own pocket. He pleaded the case in Parliament – even buttonholing Mr. Kenney in the corridors of Parliament to urge him reconsider the deportation.

After that failed, Mr. Wrzesnewskyj redoubled his legal efforts.

The written reasoning behind the Federal Court's reversal of the deportation has not yet been made available. The matter turned on whether government officials erred by kicking the family out of Canada before the completion of what's known as a "pre-removal risk assessment." The "PRRA" as it is known, proved favourable to the family when it was completed in 2010 – but by then they were long gone.

Mr. Wrzesnewskyj said the latest judge in the case supported the family wholeheartedly. "She ruled that their evidence was accurate, there was no misrepresentation, and that they have to be brought back to Canada immediately and out of harm's way."

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