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Godbless Lema and his wife Neema in Amsterdam airport during their recent journey to Canada.Handout

While serving as a prominent member of Tanzania’s parliament for a decade, Godbless Lema had always seen Canada as a potential holiday destination – not a place to seek protection to save his life.

Today, he and his family are in Saskatoon as refugees. “When I signed the refugee papers, I was crying,” Mr. Lema told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

“We never had to sign such papers in the past. This is a very bad experience for us. It’s a defeat for my country.”

The 44-year-old former MP and his wife and three children were forced to flee Tanzania after a series of threats and arrests made it increasingly clear that his life was in danger. In one incident last month, police drove him to a remote patch of bush, where he feared they would shoot him dead.

Tanzania has always been one of the biggest recipients of Canadian aid, receiving more than $2.38-billion in development funds since the 1960s, including nearly $133-million last year. But human-rights abuses have escalated drastically over the past three years. The decision to accept Mr. Lema as a refugee this month is a signal of a new position: Canada’s growing acceptance that Tanzania is no longer safe for democratic opposition leaders.

After a massive government victory in the Oct. 28 elections, widely criticized as a rigged vote, Mr. Lema and other opposition leaders announced plans for a huge nationwide protest in the streets. Instead, the police swooped on them, arrested many of them and crushed the protest plan.

The main opposition candidate, Tundu Lissu, was among those arrested. He eventually took shelter at a German diplomat’s home and then fled to Belgium.

Mr. Lema, meanwhile, slipped across the border to Kenya, found help from the United Nations refugee agency and was finally accepted by Canada.

“By taking me into their country, Canada is sending a serious message to Tanzania,” he said. “It’s a message that the world is not blind to what’s happening. Canada now agrees that Tanzania isn’t a peaceful place like before.”

Canadian refugee statistics seem to confirm the shift. Over the past two years, there has been a sharp increase in the rate of Canada’s acceptance of refugee claims by Tanzanians compared with earlier years, according to research by David Matas, a Winnipeg-based lawyer who specializes in international human rights, refugees and immigration.

The dramatic increase in refugee acceptances “should have implications for Canadian foreign policy toward Tanzania” and should lead Canada to “a more active expression for human-rights concerns in Tanzania,” Mr. Matas told The Globe.

A spokesperson for the federal Global Affairs department, Jason Kung, said the government cannot comment on Mr. Lema’s case, because of privacy issues. But he added: “We are concerned by reports of violence against civilians and detentions and arrests of opposition politicians during and after the electoral period in Tanzania.”

Mr. Kung, who was responding to questions from The Globe on behalf of both Global Affairs and the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship department, said the federal government has called on Tanzania to “investigate and prosecute those who have violated human rights.”

Maria Sarungi Tsehai, an activist who founded the Change Tanzania social movement, said Tanzanians in the past often regarded those who went into exile as unpatriotic. But the human-rights abuses under President John Magufuli have begun to remove the traditional stigma.

“This has changed drastically under Magufuli because the consequences and costs of remaining are extremely high,” she told The Globe. “The Magufuli regime has been very relentless in its pursuit of opposition politicians and critics.”

She recalled how Tanzania had given shelter to African dissidents and exiled opposition leaders in the past. “Tanzanians understand how this works, but we just never thought it would happen to us.”

Mr. Lema now lives with his family in an apartment in Saskatoon, where his children are seeing snow for the first time in their lives. He said he’s grateful Canada accepted him as a refugee, but he still hopes that Canada will take stronger action against Tanzania, including some form of sanctions, to help its jailed dissidents.

“To go against Magufuli is very dangerous,” he said. “Magufuli has become the police, the parliament, the judiciary and everything else. I’ve been to police stations and police cells and courts more times than I can remember – sometimes every month.”

He still aims to return to his homeland. “I’m going to organize in the international corridors to try to save my country, and I’ll go back to Tanzania when it’s free and safe.”

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