CBSA chastised for labelling some on its ‘wanted list’ as war criminals

Canada Border Services Agency's 'Most Wanted' website (Screengrab courtesy CBSA)

Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has had its knuckles rapped by the federal privacy watchdog over its showcase "wanted" list of foreigners it's seeking for deportation.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner found the CBSA broke the law by labelling people as war criminals when sometimes they hadn't been convicted of anything, The Canadian Press reports.

The commissioner also found the agency was leaving up postings on its "Wanted by the CBSA" web page for too long after subjects were collared and had failed to consider the privacy implications of the program before launching it.

The CBSA launched the program in 2011 to get public help in identifying and apprehending people who were in Canada illegally and were facing deportation.

It was part of a makeover for the agency to show it's aggressively protecting Canada's borders by doing more than poking through travellers' luggage looking for contraband.

The effort has included co-operating with the producers of Border Security, a COPS-like reality show airing on the National Geographic Channel that does indeed show agents poking through people's luggage.

[ Related: Border agency’s ‘Most Wanted’ website threatened by privacy concerns, red tape ]

While the wanted list ran afoul of the privacy commissioner, critics slammed Border Security after cameras accompanied agents on a raid to capture illegal immigrants working at a Vancouver construction site. The show's producers blur out faces of anyone who doesn't sign a release form but critics have argued the cameras shouldn't be there at all.

As CP noted, when the list was first launched in July 2011, the CBSA's news release emphasized it was hunting for war criminals.

"Government will not tolerate war criminals in our communities," the handout's headline read.

The current list is a mix of conventional criminal thugs and a handful of people deemed to have "violated human or international rights under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act or under international law."

Soon after the original list was posted, the Canadian Council of Refugees launched a complaint on behalf of one of the men on it, Abraham Bahaty Bayavuge, a Congolese man whose country has been torn by war for decades.

Bayavuge, who lived openly in Canada between 2000 and 2007, went underground when his refugee claim failed before being arrested in 2011, and was accused by Ottawa of complicity in war crimes. An investigation into his initial refugee bid turned up evidence Bayavuge was a member of the security services during Congo's brutal dictatorships, CP reported at the time of his arrest.

However, Bayavuge claimed he was simply a civil servant who worked as a computer technician.

"Not yesterday, not today, not tomorrow, can anyone prove that I killed even one cat, one cat," he said in an appearance before the Immigration and Refugee Board. "I wouldn't take a human life, I respect human beings..."

Assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier (now interm commissioner) upheld the council's complaint, saying references in the listing to "war crimes" or "war criminals" were "potentially misleading and not adequately justified by the CBSA," CP reported.

[ Related: Canadian Border Services most wanted list could soon be bigger and broader ]

Bernier pointed out Bayavuge and others on the list were denied entry to Canada because they had worked for governments involved in war crimes or gross human rights violations, CP said. But the language in the listing might lead the public to conclude Bayavuge actually had been convicted of war crimes, which he had not.

The wording of the listing violated the Privacy Act's provision requiring government institutions ensure personal information they use is as accurate and complete as possible, especially for something with potentially serious consequences like the wanted list, Bernier said according to CP.

The council said in a news release Thursday it welcomed the findings that CBSA has wrongly applied the war criminal tag to a significant number of people.

“It is deeply unfair to label someone a war criminal without any proper basis, but this is what happened when CBSA put out its ‘most wanted’ list,” said council president Loly Rico.

“Many of those on the list were not accused of any crime, let alone convicted. And according to a recent decision of the Supreme Court, some of those on the list potentially should never have even been facing deportation from Canada. They should have been recognized as refugees instead.”

Bernier also criticized the decision to keep Bayavuge's personal information posted online for six months after his arrest, including his date of birth and identifying features, CP said.

The CBSA responded by saying it now deletes profiles from the site within 30 days of apprehending that person and has agreed to review the amount of personal information disclosed.

As for Bayavuge, QMI Agency reported in March 2012 that he was deported back to Congo.