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Canada is seeing a surge in the number of refugee claimants who say they are homosexuals and will be persecuted if they are returned to their homelands.

In the past three years, nearly 2,500 people from 75 different countries have sought asylum on the basis of sexual orientation, according to information released under the Access to Information Act.

It is not known how many have been allowed to stay in Canada; the Immigration and Refugee Board does not track acceptance rates by case type.

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The surge in applications is being driven both by bogus claims and a growing view of Canada as a haven for persecuted homosexuals, refugee experts say.

The largest number came from Mexico, with 602, and Costa Rica, with 276 -- both democracies with thriving homosexual communities, annual Gay Pride Day parades and websites offering everything from gay weddings to gay tour operators.

Many claimants also come from Muslim countries, where homosexuality is outlawed, while a small number hail from Ireland, Britain, the United States and even the Netherlands, one of the few countries to legalize gay marriage.

Although claims on the basis of sexual orientation have been permitted since 1994 when the Supreme Court of Canada broadened the definition of social group to include homosexuals, immigration lawyers say they have seen a surge of cases in the past three years.

"People who come from relatively peaceful countries tend to grasp at straws in terms of advancing refugee claims," said Max Berger, a Toronto immigration lawyer who has represented dozens of Pakistani gay claims in the past year.

"With gay cases, it is harder to disprove. If you are making political or religious claims, you need corroborating documents from a mosque or political party. But with gay cases, they rely more on oral testimony. It is easier to advance a bogus case."

For a case to succeed, the person must first convince an IRB panel they are homosexual, and then prove they will face persecution in their homeland as a result. Armando Ramos, spokesman for the Mexican consul in Toronto, says he has met many Mexican men who told him they lied about their sexual orientation to make refugee claims in Canada. "They are clearly taking advantage of the system, and giving Mexico a bad name," he said.

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"I met with the Homosexual Latin American Association of Toronto and they are very upset about the poseurs and say immigration officials won't believe the real gays who need protection."

The country is now the fifth-largest refugee source country, behind Pakistan, with 4,257 claims in 2003; Mexico, with 2,560; Colombia with 2,131; and China with 1,840. The over all acceptance rate for Mexicans was 27 per cent.

Of the 602 Mexican claims made between January, 2000, and December, 2003, on the basis of sexual orientation, 71 were accepted, 67 were rejected, 415 await hearings and 50 were abandoned or withdrawn.

Michael Battista, a gay immigration lawyer, says many of the gay Mexicans he has represented are HIV-positive and have trouble getting jobs and medical care back home. "These cases tend to have a higher acceptance rate," he said.

El-Farouk Khaki, a Toronto immigration lawyer who also has a large gay Mexican clientele, says many have been granted asylum. A 2003 report by the Washington-based World Policy Institute notes that despite human-rights codes outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, abuse of gays by local officials does exist in some parts of Mexico.

Other countries with a high number of claims on the basis of sexual orientation include Pakistan, with 126 claims in the past three years, Nigeria with 152 and Hungary with 94. In Nigeria, homosexual acts are illegal and in Pakistan, those caught engaging in "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" may be stoned to death.

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Mr. Berger says about half the gay Pakistani claimants he has represented in the past year have been successful. One recent client, Iftikhar Ahmad Shahbaz, fled Pakistan after a fundamental religious group called the Sipah-e-Sahaba beat him several times, destroyed his business and looted his cash box.

"I fear for my life in Pakistan where I cannot safely live as a homosexual male," said Mr. Shahbaz, 26, who awaits a hearing.

Robert Moorhouse, who has represented more than 60 gay refugee claimants over the years, says the area is a very complex one. "I used to call it Gay 101. Immigration and Refugee Board members ask claimants what day the Gay Pride parade was on, where the gay bars in Toronto are located and whether they were in a relationship," Mr. Moorhouse said. "But what does that prove? Members have to have gaydar [gay radar] and rely on their gut instinct. But it is also a subjective area."

Mr. Ramos acknowledged that Latin machismo as well as the conservative influence of the Roman Catholic Church are still pervasive in Mexico, but said homosexuals are not systematically persecuted.

Charles Hawkins, the IRB spokesman, notes that credibility is a key issue in refugee cases, and that IRB members do not prejudge claims based on country of origin or case type.

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