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Paul Sullivan

The case of the genital refugees Add to ...

I'm glad I live in a country that frowns on the practice of female circumcision. While some argue the health benefits of male circumcision, female circumcision has zero health benefits, and the way it's practised in some backwaters, it can be fatal. Some fundamentalists think it's a good way to preserve the chastity of young women, but it's easy to assign them to the same obscurity reserved for members of the Flat Earth Society.

Genital mutilation is a more precise way to describe female circumcision. It's an odious practice in a world groaning under the weight of odious practices and we wouldn't even be going on about it if it weren't for the woman and her four daughters cowering in a church hall in Calgary, afraid that if they come out, the girls will be genitally mutilated.

Female circumcision is illegal in Canada, but not in Nigeria, the home country of Ololade Labiyi and her daughters, ages 4, 8, 10 and 17. She's hiding because her refugee claim has been rejected and she's about to be sent home, where, she believes, pressure from her husband and his family will lead to her children being mutilated.

At this point, I suppose it is acceptable to return to your Cheerios, conscience clear. After all, a spokesman for the federal Immigration and Refugee Board says that Ms. Labiyi and her lawyer failed to make a convincing case. Due process has been followed, and the board apparently decided she and her family could move to a part of Nigeria where genital mutilation is not practised.

Regional Director Don Skelton took pains to speak to the claimants' fears. "We are sensitive to the cultural situation in her home country," he told a Calgary newspaper, "but based on the evidence she told us, she and her daughters are not at risk."

So why are Ms. Labiyi and her daughters holed up in St. Cecilia's church hall if they're not at risk? Would you make your family the headline act in a media circus because Canada's a nice place, and maybe you'd like to live here? (The parish priest says he's had 500 media calls, even one from Newsweek, which makes this an official media circus).

There's always the possibility the family is putting on a show. There's the famous case of a Ghanaian woman in the United States who became the cause of the week for Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Vanessa Redgrave and Julia Roberts -- until it turned out her identity was a tissue of lies, and she was mainly at risk of enduring the rest of her life in Ghana.

So, what do we do? Well, almost exactly a year ago, the federal court overturned the deportation of a young woman to Nigeria, finding that immigrations officials were "clearly wrong" in their conclusion that she did not face a risk. So can we trust the immigration board's ruling in this case?

On the other hand, some Nigerian women scoff at the fear of genital mutilation, arguing that it's not as widespread as feared in the West, and it didn't kill them, did it?

This is the price that Canada pays for offering refuge -- we have to think about these cases until our heads hurt. We are required to act wisely, to review and review again. We risk applying the rules inequitably, wringing our hands in despair. And we are forced to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Yep, Canada's a mess all right. But Ololade Labiyi is so desperate to stay here, she won't come out until she can. Apparently, she knows what a real mess is like. psullivan@globeandmail.ca

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