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AIDS stay-behinds: Up to 150 delegates to last month’s T.O. conference have filed refugee claims

10 September 2006 (Toronto Sun)

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See online : AIDS stay-behinds: Up to 150 delegates to last month’s T.O. conference have filed refugee claims

By TOM GODFREY, TORONTO SUN

"It feels good to be free" and in Canada, says activist X., who bolted from his Eritrean government handlers at Pearson airport after arriving for last month’s international AIDS conference. (Alex Urosevic/Sun)

A top Eritrean AIDS activist is among some 150 delegates of last month’s international AIDS conference in Toronto who stayed behind and filed refugee claims in a bid to remain in Canada, immigration officials confirm.

X., 32, had to sprint to a waiting car at Pearson airport to escape Eritrean agents as he arrived for the AIDS 2006 conference.

Most of the claimants have the deadly disease and include a large group of women from hardest-hit South Africa and citizens of El Salvador, Eritrea, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

"It feels good to be free," said X., who has the disease. "I like Canada and the people here."

The activist, who is founder of Eritrea’s 6,000-member association for people living with AIDS, was allowed to travel to Canada on the condition he surrender his passport to two government minders, who were also delegates.

X. said he was given his passport for processing on landing at Pearson and managed to bolt to a pre-determined meeting with men who spirited him to a waiting car.

"I was only allowed to leave my homeland for 10 days," he said. "The government didn’t want me to leave the country."

Many of the claimants are staying at Toronto hostels awaiting hearing dates before an immigration board, officials said.

24,000 PARTICIPANTS

Canadian immigration spokesman Karen Shadd-Evelyn confirmed yesterday that up to 150 claims were received from the 24,000 participants at the Aug. 13-18 conference.

"We can’t talk about specific claims," Shadd-Evelyn said. "We cannot release their country of origins or other information."

Francisco Rico-Martinez, of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto, said three of the claimants — X., a man from El Salvador and a woman from Zimbabwe — were referred to his "gender-friendly" hostel.

"Both of the men have AIDS," Rico-Martinez said yesterday. "They face persecution and discrimination at home."

He said X. faces persecution or jail if he returns to Eritrea for violating the 10-day permit.

Rico-Martinez said the claimants are treated in their native countries as outcasts, or have little or no medicine. He said some are discriminated against by doctors, who don’t want to treat them.

Joan Anderson, a senior adviser of AIDS 2006, said 14,000 of the delegates were from outside North America.

Melissa Anderson, of the Immigration and Refugee Board, said it’ll take about a year before the claimants find out if they’re accepted in Canada. About 48% of all claimants are accepted in Canada as refugees.