Saturday, March 29, 2008


'Running out of sympathy'
Refugee claimant Laibar Singh had support of the Sikh community, but he's running out of friends

Brian Hutchinson, National Post
Published: Friday, March 28, 2008

Failed refugee claimant Laibar Singh is propped up in bed, a heat lamp fixed on his withered right forearm. He is ill.

According to his doctor, he should be in hospital. Instead, he's locked inside a white, two-storey house next to a large Sikh temple, and is attended to by priests and their subordinates. They say he's not going anywhere.

Before wearing out his welcome last week, Mr. Singh was lodged inside another Sikh house, owned by a different temple down the highway in Surrey. He also spent time in New Westminster, and before that here in Abbotsford, a 45-minute drive southeast of Vancouver.

He is tired of being shuttled from one safe haven to another as people attempt to manage his considerable needs while shielding him from Canadian immigration officials.

Frustrated border agents say they would like to enforce a long-standing deportation order against him. Despite repeated attempts to put Mr. Singh on an airplane, they haven't succeeded.

A 48-year-old labourer, Mr. Singh used a fake passport to enter Canada five years ago. He sought refugee status in Montreal, claiming he would be persecuted should he be forced back to his native Punjab, in India. That claim was found lacking and after his refugee application and subsequent appeals were rejected, Mr. Singh received a deportation order.

Rather than respect the order, Mr. Singh quietly moved on, to B.C.'s Lower Mainland. He then fell ill and was bedridden.

Somehow, he became a cause célèbre. In December, thousands of Sikhs converged on Vancouver International Airport and blocked attempts by Canada Border Services Agency officials to escort him to his flight back to India.

Mr. Singh was then spirited to Surrey, where others took up the cause. For a while, at least. "He's not our headache anymore," snaps one disenchanted Sikh elder in Surrey.

Officially, Mr. Singh still enjoys support from distant organizations and individuals, from the Canadian Labour Congress to author Naomi Klein. But here in B.C., he's fast losing friends.

A seven-person committee representing 21 local human rights groups and religious societies was formed this month to press his case. But it disbanded within days, after Mr. Singh allegedly reneged on an agreement to return to his native India.

Last week, leaders of the Surrey temple where Mr. Singh was offered sanctuary, solidarity and a large sum of cash sent him packing; they claim they were "double-crossed" by their former guest.

"He's a liar," declares Balwant Singh Gill, president of the Guru Nanak Sikh temple in Surrey, near Vancouver. "He said he would obey the laws of Canada and go home. We think it's in his best interest to go home. We even offered him $100,000 for medical treatment in India."

Half that amount was posted as a surety to the Immigration and Refugee Board, in order to buy some more time for Mr. Singh to recover from his illness and arrange his affairs in India. The money, raised by local supporters, has been forfeited, says Mr. Gill, thanks to Mr. Singh's intransigence.

"Nothing with [Mr. Singh] worked out the way we had hoped," he says. "We didn't even know anything about him, really. He kept changing his story all the time."

Mr. Singh admits that his story is confusing. His failed refugee application was based on an alleged fear of persecution in India: He claimed to have been the victim of a false accusation - that he was once a member of the Khalistan Commando Force, a terrorist organization seeking to form an independent Sikh state.

But Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board did not find this credible.

A widower with four children still in India, Mr. Singh was actually a sapper in the Indian army before becoming a common labourer.

He now says that fear of persecution is not an issue.

He wants to be allowed to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, based on his illness.

But there is confusion over that, as well. Mr. Singh's supporters and some reporters continue to assert that he suffered either a "stroke" or a "cerebral aneurism" while painting a house in Montreal two years ago, and that he is now a quadriplegic.

In fact, he was diagnosed with a spinal infection after moving to the Vancouver area. It is a debilitating illness - Mr. Singh lost the use of his limbs - but one from which he can at least partially recover. Indeed, his condition has improved, thanks to weekly acupuncture and acupressure treatments, and he can now move his arms. "I'm feeling okay," he said in a bedside interview this week.

His health problems should not preclude him from returning to India, according to his own physician. Appearing on a local radio program in January, Gulzar Cheema said "anyone in his condition with the proper medical treatment can travel."

Dr. Cheema also suggested Mr. Singh required better medical care than could be provided while in sanctuary inside a Sikh temple.

Everyone directly involved in the Singh case concedes that such care exists in India, albeit for a price. The $100,000 offered by former supporters would likely have taken care of that, says Mr. Gill, president of the Surrey temple.

Mr. Singh's care in Canada also has a price, one borne by taxpayers. Earlier this month, the Vancouver Sun reported that his public medical bills have already reached $491,900. That's in addition to the $62,947 the Canadian Border Services Agency has spent on its aborted deportation attempts.

None of this should count against him, or hinder his application to stay in Canada, argues Mr. Singh's lawyer. "It's not unusual" to be accepted on humanitarian and compassionate grounds because of health issues, says Zool Suleman.

Government officials are reviewing his client's latest application; they should also consider "the huge outpouring of concern and support that has come from across Canada," says Mr. Suleman, even if it's shrinking.

He cannot predict when a decision might come. In the meantime, his client remains in bed, inside another Sikh-owned house, where CBSA officials dare not tread for fear of offending religious leaders. Mr. Singh hopes not to wear out his welcome again.

National Post

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