Monday hearing for masked refugee claimant

VANCOUVER - Remove the mask, and the case of a young Asian man who boarded a flight to Canada elaborately disguised as an elderly white man is "completely typical" of the thousands of refugee claims made in this country every year, the man's lawyer said Sunday.

VANCOUVER - Remove the mask, and the case of a young Asian man who boarded a flight to Canada elaborately disguised as an elderly white man is "completely typical" of the thousands of refugee claims made in this country every year, the man's lawyer said Sunday.

The unidentified man, who boarded an Air Canada plane in Hong Kong on Oct. 29 wearing a silicone mask that he removed during the flight, is scheduled to appear before the Immigration and Refugee Board in Vancouver on Monday for a routine detention hearing.

The case made headlines around the world after an internal Canada Border Services Agency bulletin and several photographs of the man were leaked to the U.S.-based news network CNN. That leak prompted the man's lawyer to accuse Canadian officials of "playing dirty" and potentially putting the man in danger. CBSA has since launched an investigation into who distributed the document.

But beyond that, Lee Rankin, who acted as duty council soon after the man arrived in Canada, said there's little to distinguish the case from the tens of thousands of refugee claims that Canada sees every year. Those cases often involve claimants who illegally enter Canada using forged documents and even wearing disguises in some instances.

"Other than the leak and the mask, it's completely typical," Rankin said in an interview Sunday.

"I've dealt with people who've worn wigs, who've dyed their hair and changed their appearance to look like the document they've been provided. It's a bit unusual, but so what?"

Rankin also denied the claim in the leaked CBSA bulletin that the man used an Aeroplan frequent-flyer card as his identification to board the plane. Air Canada has called the suggestion "unfounded."

"People are saying, 'How did he get on a plane with an Aeroplan card?' That's not true. It looks like he was provided with inauthentic or irregular documentation," said Rankin, who suggested human smugglers were almost certainly involved.

"My sense of this person and what's occurred here is he was under the direction of somebody on every step of the way."

On Monday, the Immigration and Refugee Board will hold the man's second detention hearing, which is mandatory within seven days of a claimant's detention. The hearing will focus on whether the federal government has confirmed the man's identity.

After a refugee claimant's identity is determined, he or she is typically released while their claim makes its way through the system, unless the federal government can prove releasing them poses a security risk.

It can take a year or more for the Immigration and Refugee Board to determine whether an asylum seeker has a legitimate claim to stay in Canada.

"His assertions fall into ... participating in activities or organizations that are banned or ruthlessly suppressed in China, I think I'll leave it at that," said Rankin.

Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has previously said there was nothing unusual about the case other than the mask, noting that it only caught the public's attention because of the leaked documents. Still, he added it was "troubling" that a masked man was able to board a commercial airliner.

A spokesman Toews said in an email Sunday that the minister doesn't make decisions about the release of CBSA documents and noted the agency is investigating the leak.

CBSA spokeswoman Patrizia Giolti said the document's release to CNN "did not follow standard media relations practices" and the agency is investigating.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, in Halifax for a security conference, appeared to downplay the significance of the case, calling it "basic." However, he said it demonstrates the need for more advanced screening methods.

"At the same time, clearly a lot of thought went into this particular effort," said MacKay. "I think in the future we are going to see continued use of biometrics, continued use of more sophisticated methods of recognition of individuals."

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who isn't connected to the man's case, agreed the story appears to be a rather routine refugee claim.

He said the real scandal is the leak itself.

"A refugee claim happens many times a day in Canada, but an intelligence bulletin that's current, that finds its way to CNN? It's astonishing," Kurland said in an interview.

"It's a potential hole in the intelligence fence. For the same reason they won't release (such a document) under access to information because it may raise a national security question or expose investigative techniques, the reasons equally apply to this situation."

A report on CBSA's website says Canada had about 37,000 refugee claims in 2008. Of those, more than 8,000 were made at Canadian airports.

In that same year, the Immigration and Refugee Board received 1,700 new refugee claims from China, making the country the fourth-largest source for asylum seekers in 2008. Of the nearly 1,000 decisions that were finalized that year, about 600 claimants — or 61 per cent — were accepted as legitimate refugees.

The federal government recently pledged tougher laws to crack down on human smuggling. The proposed changes were prompted by the MV Sun Sea, a cargo freighter that arrived off the West Coast in August carrying nearly 500 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. They are all making refugee claims.