Globe and Mail | 27Jan2007 | Alex Drobota

Israelis seek asylum in Canada

OTTAWA -- Canada is granting residency to growing numbers of Israeli asylum seekers, including ethnic Russians, ultra-orthodox Jews and political dissidents who say they are victims of political or religious persecution in Israel.

This is upsetting Israeli authorities and members of the Jewish community in Canada. They say the refugee claimants are smearing the image of the Middle Eastern state as one that offers a haven to persecuted Jews the world over.

�It upsets people in Israel because immigrant absorption in Israel is a key value,� said Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Ottawa. �We're very hurt when we hear of these claims.�

Israel's ambassador to Ottawa has recently called the claims �bogus� and urged officials here not to accept Israeli asylum seekers. Mr. Gendelman stressed that Israel is a democratic state with human-rights institutions that serve all of its citizens.

But in many cases, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has disagreed.

More than 500 Israelis applied for refugee status in Canada last year, up from 253 in 2000. The acceptance rate rose from 5 per cent to 31 per cent in 2005 and 18 per cent last year, when IRB accepted 45 claims � an implicit recognition that these individuals suffered persecution in a state that could not protect their rights.

�In terms of refugee determination, the [questions are]: does the person have a well-founded fear of persecution, is there no other in-country flight alternative, and is there state protection available?� IRB spokeswoman Melissa Anderson said.

The recent spike in numbers has put Israel in the top 10 countries ranked by the number refugee applications in Canada, along with Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Nigeria and Sri Lanka.

IRB officials are hard pressed to explain the increase in numbers.

Some observers have suggested that the surge in hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians is creating a climate where political dissidence and religious difference is less welcomed.

�Israel is a state that perceives itself as under siege,� said William Sloan, a Montreal lawyer for many ultra-orthodox Jews who say they have been persecuted in Israel. Many ultra-orthodox Jews have publicly disagreed with many of Israel's policies, including its stand on the conflict with Palestinians.

�Anyone within the walls who tries to break that unity when you're under siege is not well viewed.�

Shimon Fogel, of the Canada-Israel Committee, said these refugee claimants sometimes draw contempt from established Jewish community members in Canada. Mr. Fogel qualified the claimants as opportunistic migrants seeking a shortcut into Canada's immigration system.

A notorious case soon to be heard by IRB involves the son of a Yemeni rabbi critical of Israeli authorities, who was jailed during the 1990s after an armed standoff.

Emanuel Meshulam came to Canada in 2005, claiming persecution at the hands of the Israeli police and the spy agency Mossad.

His father, Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, had accused Israel's European-dominated authorities of abducting hundreds of Yemeni children. The infants were separated from their parents during their chaotic immigration to Israel in the late 1940s.

The disappearance itself stirred much controversy, fuelling allegations that European Jews look down on Jews from Arab countries. Mr. Meshulam's charges were invalidated in several state investigations.

But in 1994, his armed followers demanded a fresh inquiry. After a standoff, Israeli forces stormed his compound, killing one of his devotees. Since then, Emanuel Meshulam says he was constantly followed by police and at one point threatened at gunpoint by Mossad agents.

�They threatened to take my children away,� he said through a translator.

Other refugees are believed to be Russian-speaking citizens of the former Soviet Union, a group that forms something of an economic underclass, often working in jobs that fall far below their skill levels.

Some refugee applicants are also believed to be Arab-Israelis, many of whom complain of outright racism in Israel since the beginning of the second intifada.

With a report from Mark MacKinnon