Some years ago, researching a magazine article, I ventured into a filthy Haitian slum to meet a Canadian deportee. His name was George. He was born in Haiti, but came to Canada with his family when he was four. As a teenager in Montreal, he fell into a life of crime, mostly theft and drug dealing, and when he reached adulthood, the government threw him out.
There are hundreds just like him on the streets of Port-au-Prince, young men without family and prospects. They are tough and angry, and you would not want to meet them alone, in a dark alley. They are also frightened, because they are prisoners in a country that does not want them, a country they no longer know. George misses his family, and hamburgers, in that order.
I did not feel sorry for George. He had earned his punishment. However, just about the time George was delivered into Haitian exile, another man arrived in Canada. His name was Lai Changxing , and he was on the run. Chinese authorities wanted him in connection with a US$10 billion smuggling network. It has been described as China's biggest scandal of modern times, involving the alleged corruption of Chinese officials. But Lai melted into the Canadian landscape with his wife, Tsang Mingna, and it was more than a year before police caught up with him in a Niagara Falls casino. But unlike George, Lai knew how to play the game. He called a lawyer and, together, they took on the system.
'Endless appeals, endless abuses.' That is how a character in the film Human Cargo described the Canadian immigration system. If you have money and access to good legal advice, you can work it to your advantage. For two years, Lai fought to stay in Canada, but in 2002, authorities ruled that he did not meet the standards of a refugee.
Every year, more than 30,000 people make a bid for refugee status in Canada. But few have Lai's resources. Without skipping a beat, he appealed under the 'risk of return' clause, saying that he would be executed if he was deported to China. Even though Beijing has reportedly promised that it would not put Lai to death, he and his wife are still in British Columbia. The official reason: the appeals process has not yet been exhausted.
Canada is paying a heavy price for its stubborn insistence on 'due process'. Recently, The Globe and Mail reported that China, furious at the refusal to hand over Lai, is retaliating by refusing to sign a huge tourism deal. One former tourism official said: 'We are losing the Chinese market. We had a wonderful opportunity and we destroyed it.' George does not have access to Canadian newspapers in Haiti, but if he did, the fallout over Lai's case would probably amuse him. Maybe there is some justice in the system, after all.