By Andrea Houston
Behind a thick wall of glass, 26-year-old Sergio Perez’s eyes well up with tears as he speaks in hushed tones describing the homophobic mistreatment him and his boyfriend endured at the Toronto Immigration Holding Centre.
Perez was only in the centre a few days when guards and other staff members started taunting him and questioning his sexuality, he said.
“I am really open with my boyfriend,” he said. “We’ve been questioned by people here. They ask, ‘so, who’s the man and who’s the woman?’When Xtra met Perez in the holding centre he had been detained for one week. His bloodshot eyes look sleep deprived. As he speaks, he shiftily glances side-to-side fearing who might be eavesdropping on the conversation.
“The guards asked us how much we like to be penetrated,” he said, holding the tip of his finger up, imitating the guard. “It was so offensive.”
“We have to watch everything we say,” he said. “We are frightened. The only people we have is each other. When we touch, the guards tell us to stop."Perez came to Canada from Mexico with his boyfriend Tizoc Alatorre, 30, in 2006 seeking a better life.
But after their refugee claim was denied, the couple were arrested Oct 26 and forced to spend a week in the holding centre before friends fronted their $5,000 bail.
Perez said the couple filed for refugee status seeking asylum on the basis of his sexuality because he fears for his life in Mexico.
But with comments from Canadian guards like “who penetrates who?” Perez says his trust in Canadian authorities is shaky.
“We are still safer here than in Mexico,” he said. “We really don’t want to go back to Mexico.”Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) communications spokesperson Anna Pape said the allegations of mistreatment raised by Perez were never brought to the attention of any CBSA official.
“All allegations of improper behaviour by CBSA employees are taken very seriously and are thoroughly investigated and acted upon accordingly,” she said. “CBSA employees are expected to uphold the law in carrying out their duties. The agency has no tolerance for any illegal or inappropriate actions.”Confused, scared and without legal representation, Perez and Alatorre are now grudgingly buying a plane ticket home, and fearing for their future as they prepare to return to Mexican soil. In the meantime, the couple is filing a complaint with the Human Rights Commission regarding how they were treated in the holding centre.
“The situation in Mexico for queers is extremely unsafe,” she said. “From our perspective Mexico is not safe for queer people. But that’s not the decision by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). They have an across the board policy on Mexico.”And the situation only got worse this year, Morrissey said. Since August, when Mexico’s Supreme Court ordered all Mexican states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City, the country became wrongly perceived as a safe haven for gay people. Perez said gay people are persecuted by macho bullies not happy with the change in laws.
Then there’s the issue of internal flight. If there is a place in the country that is deemed “safe,” such as Mexico City, the claimant must seek protection there, according to international refugee case law, said IRB spokesperson Charles Hawkins.
“If there’s no protection anywhere in their country then they would be deserving of refugee protection,” he said.Mexico City is considered a safe place for refugees to go back to, an “internal flight alternative,” he said.
But that’s certainly not the attitude of the police officers or citizens on the ground, Morrissey said.
Mexico's justice system is failing its queer citizens, she says. The country's constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference, but those laws are not enforced and homophobia is systemic within police departments.
“There is a reasonable fear of persecution if they’re sent back,” she said. “The state police don’t provide protection because they don’t take the situation seriously, which adds to the abuse and homophobia.In 2007 Mexico surpassed China as Canada’s largest source of refugee claimants. While 38 percent of claimants overall were granted refugee status in 2007, only 10 percent of Mexican claims were successful.
“Queer people are not given state protection in Mexico.”
That number has only continued to decline, said Hawkins. Currently only around eight percent are granted refugee status, according to numbers released to Xtra from the IRB.
In 2009 the IRB received 6,092 claims from Mexico. Of that, only 516 were accepted.
Hawkins said the IRB doesn’t have a blanket policy on Mexico, assuring that each claim is looked at on a case-by-case basis.
“The risk (in a country) is evaluated on each claim. (The board) looks at the well-foundedness of the claimant’s fear,” he said. “That’s not only looking at the legislation in another country, it’s also how the laws are enforced and what the situation is like on the ground.”Hawkins could not provide Xtra with statistics to show how many refugee claimants are seeking asylum because they are gay, lesbian or trans, nor could he say how many rejected Mexican refugee claimants are queer.
In 2007, Enrique Villegas, 35, was killed in his apartment in Mexico City just four years after Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board rejected his claim. In 2008, Xtra told the story of Leonardo Zuniga who was also afraid to return to Mexico.
According to the Youth Action Network, a youth-driven non-profit organization focused on social justice issues, more than 1000 gay people have been murdered in Mexico in the past 10 years with little sign of justice.