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Refugees behind bars
VANCOUVER, BC Dec. 16, 2012/ Troy Media/ – We don’t hear much about how our new immigration policies affect asylum seekers in Canada. CBC shed some light on the issue with a December 13th report on the children kept in Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) detention.
The detention centres divide families, sending males over 16 to separate facilities. But when it comes to Canadian policy on asylum seekers, the children are just the tip of the iceberg.
While the number of children reported to be in CBSA detention over the past year is 289, this figure does not count Canadian-born children who are in detention with their foreign born parents. The real number may be much higher.
Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney was at pains to stress that, despite the razor wire, surveillance cameras, and shackled transport, detention is not jail. This too is misleading. According to the Global Detention Project, Canada has been steadily increasing the use of provincial prisons for immigration detention. Between 2010 and 2011, 35 per cent of all CBSA detainees were held in jails. According to a 2011 report from McGill University, ‘the vast majority are detained simply because they are unable to establish their identity to the satisfaction of an immigration officer.’
This is happening despite the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which Canada is a party, which requires that individuals claiming refugee status not be punished for traveling with false documents.
Some of these people are asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected. Others are newly-arrived refugees, whose claims have not yet been assessed. The government does not differentiate between the two categories. The vast majority of these detainees are categorized as ‘low risk’, meaning that they have no record of criminality, nor are they deemed a danger to the public.
While detained in prison they are regular inmates, subject to the same regulations and indistinguishable from other prisoners. Wardens are unaware of how many prisoners at any time may be CBSA detainees. The reason that prisons are being used is that Canada is detaining people in greater numbers. It is ironic that someone fleeing capture and imprisonment in a place like North Korea could end up in a Canadian prison while their case is being evaluated.
Bill C-31, which was passed in June, imposes ‘mandatory detention’ of 12 months on any person the Minister of Public Safety deems an ‘irregular’ arrival. There is no limit on the amount of time such individuals may be held – without charges, access to judicial review, or legal counsel.
Even if a refugee claim is accepted as legitimate, there is still no security. If a family comes to Canada from Syria, and settle as refugees, they may be expelled at any time prior to obtaining citizenship. The grant of permanent residence to accepted refugees is history. The Minister may decide that the situation in their former country has become safe, and summarily deport them.
What impact does such a policy have on a family which has already left everything and resettled? They will be forced to start again: finding work, picking up school, and piecing together their lives, while trying to overcome the trauma that forced them to flee originally. The second removal may be nearly as difficult as the first – except that they can stay in a secure Canadian detention facility while waiting to be deported. There is no right of appeal.
The Canadian Bar Association has publicly stated its view that Bill C-31 is unconstitutional, and a violation of Canada’s international obligations with regard to the protection of human rights. The Canadian Council of Refugees (in a statement endorsed by dozens of churches and civil society organizations) adds that this legislation gives ministers ‘broad, unfettered and unprecedented powers’, devoid of accountability.
While Kenney emphasizes the need to deter ‘bogus’ refugee claims, there is nothing bogus about the impact of Bill C-31 on vulnerable individuals who come to Canada seeking shelter. Many of them will eventually be accepted as legitimate refugees. Treating any group of people as lesser human beings because of their mode of arrival on our shores is unacceptable.
It bears recalling just how central the fact of migration is to our collective national history – from ‘irregular’ arrivals on Irish and Scottish boats to the rejection of would-be regular ones from Asia. It seems even migrant children are now fair game for official ideological mischief. You would think that a minister who previously chaired a parliamentary committee on international human rights would know what this says about our moral standing.
Troy Media columnist Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She has a graduate degree in International Development and Education from the University of London. Her published academic writing focuses on the rights of women and minorities. She has contributed widely to publications on Islam and the Muslim world. Eva has taught at the University of British Columbia, and the Beijing University of Science and Technology. She currently teaches at SFU. Website: http://www.ccsmsc.sfu.ca/about_us/faculty/eva_sajoo. Follow Eva on Twitter @esajoo
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