Mondoweiss / August 27, 2023
Youssef Ismail, a stateless Palestinian who has been stranded in Canada since 1991, wants to be deported back to Palestine. But the Canadian government is refusing to send him home or grant him papers.
A situation of stateless limbo in Montreal defines many of the difficult logistics of daily life for Palestinian refugee Youssef Ismail who lives in the working-class Parc Extension area of the city. Since 1991, Youssef, originally from the occupied West Bank city of Qalqiliya, has survived in a violent limbo between colonial borderlines. This case illustrates the profound injustice of the stateless experience of Palestinians and also the major cracks in the political infrastructure of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government of Canada, which since taking office in 2015 has vocally articulated support, broadly speaking, for the rights of refugees.
Sitting with Youssef in his small one-room apartment in Parc Extension can quickly convey the stress that defines a stateless reality. “I want to go home,” states Youssef during one of our conversations this past year. “Until now, I have no real answers to my situation, and the government keeps turning in circles. It is the system that is a problem and that will not allow me to return to Palestine.”
In these regular encounters over the past year, I have made an effort to both listen and engage with Youssef on the level of community organizing. As a board member of the Immigrant Workers Centre, and a long-time activist within migrant justice networks in the city and beyond, I have been trying to find ways to support Youssef and bring forward this story of statelessness and work toward a resolution. In many cases of asylum-seekers, there are clear pathways to support. Usually, there are examples where a network within a particular community facing the violence of deportation organizes together and publicly articulates opposition to deportation and the demand for status. This process is reflected in the broader #StatusForAll movement. In the years after 9/11, a network of community activists in Montreal organized to support Palestinian refugees facing deportation from Canada as the Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees. The current reality and organizing work expressed in this text build on my experience in helping to coordinate this past campaign.
Added to this is the individual casework that many migrant justice activists undertake on a community-based level. In the Canadian context, that often means organizing an application for a non-status person to be granted status on Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds given their community involvement. In the case of Youssef, there are many factors that are blocking these options — particularly, the fact that Youssef wants to return to Palestine, and is actually asking the Canadian state to deport him to Palestine.
Canadian authorities are not willing or able to do so because the Israeli state controls the West Bank and will not allow Youssef to enter given that he participated in popular protests in the West Bank against the Israeli occupation. There are other claims around Youssef’s involvement in Palestinian groups taking action against the occupying Israeli government, but Canadian authorities have never made this information, or these claims, public, so engaging with this question is blurry, and the political logic is opaque.
In many ways, the stateless limbo that Youssef faces illustrates the violent reality of life as a stateless Palestinian person. Until now, Youssef’s extended family lives in Qalqilya, and his mother actually just passed away this spring, at 99 years old. Due to the ways that Palestinian national identity is denied by western colonial state authorities, Youssef faces a situation in which both the Canadian system and Israeli system are claiming that Youssef cannot legally exist. Canada will not accept Youssef’s refugee claim and grant him status until now, while Israeli authorities will not allow Youssef to return. In many ways, Youssef’s story is a clear illustration of the actual definition of being a refugee. However, due to the fact that the Israeli colonial project is attempting to erase Palestine and Palestinians like Youssef by blocking his return, while the Canadian government will not recognize Youssef’s reality as a refugee, this equals a violent stateless limbo that defines daily life for Youssef.
In terms of the rights of asylum-seekers, the 1951 UN convention relating to the Status of Refugees states in Article 3 that “Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.” In the case of Youssef, it is clear that as a stateless Palestinian, he has faced discrimination of origin. In this sense. the Canadian state in recent decades has boosted political support for the Israeli project. It builds on decades of political colonial alliance, but recent years have seen a major boost in political and economic cooperation between the Israeli and Canadian state apparatuses. This is made clear through the reinvigoration of the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement in recent years.
In real terms, this has meant that many of the government-appointed judges at the Immigration and Refugee Board, which oversees the process of refugee claimants, have been less welcoming to Palestinian refugees. Youssef’s case dates back to 1991, but the political atmosphere within the structures of governmental power in Canada has meant that translating his reality of statelessness within the context of Israeli occupation in the West Bank has been difficult. Although the Canadian government has taken some bold and welcome moves to support refugee climates, particularly Syrian refugees, Youssef has been in Canada as a stateless person since 1991, and has gotten no support during this time while remaining in total legal limbo.
Throughout this past year, I have been taking the time to visit with Youssef and have gone through a political organizing process to invite others to join in on the meetings. Together, we have been working to find a way forward to support Youssef’s calls for justice. Clearly, living without papers and in total legal limbo from 1991-2023 is not acceptable, and takes a major toll on anyone’s mental and physical health. I am writing this text to attempt to articulate and share Youssef’s story as part of a broader effort to pressure the Canadian government to grant Youssef status, and/or respect Youssef’s wishes and allow him to return to the West Bank in Palestine, despite Israeli authorities not allowing for Youssef’s return.
Stefan Christoff is a community organizer, musician, and community radio host living in Montreal