Seeking refuge: challenges and changes in the Canadian refugee system
For many Canadians, Canada Day translates to a long weekend of backyard barbeques, firework displays and red and white face paint. But for thousands of refugee claimants, awaiting decisions from the Immigration and Refugee Board, the significance of Canadian citizenship goes far beyond July 1 festivities.
The United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951, defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, over 24,900 people came to Canada and made a refugee claim in 2011.
Since ratifying the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1969, Canada has established an internationally acknowledged record of accepting refugees. At various times in history, Canada has been at the forefront of legislation protecting refugees. For example Canada was early to accept fear of gender-based coming-of-age-rituals as a legitimate reason for fleeing a country.
“That became a landmark moment in refugee arbitration,” said Joshua Labove, a PhD student specializing in border security and immigration, and member of Simon Fraser University’s Geography department.
Refugees make their way to Canada in one of two ways. Through the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, refugees living in impermanent situations (often refugee camps) are selected by the government or private organizations, and moved to Canada, where they can settle permanently. Through the In-Canada-Asylum program, refugees arrive in Canada and claim asylum. This can prove to be a lengthy process.
Refugees entering Canada must make their claim for asylum when they first enter the country. A member of Citizenship and Immigration Canada hears this claim. If Citizenship and Immigration Canada find the claimant eligible to enter Canada, the case is forwarded to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, who reviews the claim either through a full hearing or an expedited process.
While the procedure appears relatively simple, it is often financially and emotionally difficult. According to a Toronto Star article, the average claim in 2008-09 took 16.5 months, and cost $4,100.
Arrival in Canada is made particularly difficult by the unique “safe third country” agreement with the United States. This unique arrangement requires refugees to claim asylum in whichever country they first arrive.
This arrangement is problematic: while the United States is more accessible, the Canadian system is more desirable for asylum seekers. “The refugee process in Canada is long and protracted, but not nearly as politicized and criminalized as in the United States. In the US, refugees are often incarcerated,” explained Labove.
Even refugees who arrive directly in Canada are faced with what Labove calls a "draining" procedures.
Asylum-seekers may be greeted with skepticism from the government, public, and media. Labove referred to the August 2010 arrival of the MV Sun Sea, a boat carrying nearly 500 Tamils seeking asylum in Canada, as an example of this skepticism.
“The province [BC] did a frighteningly thorough job of chronicling the Tamil refugees.”
Unlike the passengers of the MV Sun Sea, most refugees do not arrive en masse. However, this does not mean that their journeys are easier. Claimants may not enter the country if they have previously been granted protection in Canada or another country, if they have had an earlier claim rejected by Canada, or if they have withdrawn a previous claim in Canada. Claimants will also not be received if they enter through the United States (because of the “safe third country agreement”), or are perceived as a security threat.
Once cleared to enter the country, refugees begin a review process with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Refugees are required to prove that their fear of persecution is founded. They may also have to prove a number of other details about themselves, including marriage status, education level, or profession.
The assessment by the Immigration and Refugee Board can be demanding. For example, when reviewing marriages, refugees can be asked to prove that their marriage meets legal and social understandings in both their countries of origin, and in Canada. “Only in asylum adjudication must you prove that your marriage is legal in two separate places at once,” said Labove.
As arduous as the process is in its current form, Bill C-31, the Conservative Government’s latest omnibus bill, includes changes that, according to Labove, will affect the “entire immigration landscape.”
“Bill C-31 will promote a market-based immigration program, where settlement is determined by trade, commerce, and job skills, and humanitarian obligations are devalued,” said Labove. “Refugees have been categorized as people who jumped the line. This is a very American-style way of thinking. Rhetoric around Bill C-31 refers to refugees as if they have somehow broken a law - which they haven’t.”
Labove described a recent speech given by Immigration Minister Jason Kenny, during which he showed an image of heavy traffic on Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Way to illustrate the current immigration situation, and an empty Autobahn to describe the future of immigration, following Bill C-31 changes. Labove disagreed with this analogy, however. “At the least it will make the process [of obtaining refugee status] slower and more expensive.”
Many of these expenses, Labove fears, will come from a potential for a growth in deportation of refugees, caused by rhetoric and viewpoints that criminalize asylum seekers. “Deportation is an expensive, arduous affair … In the United States model, we’ve seen that the threat of deportation leads to the existence of communities where people live undocumented, living clandestine lives without access to school, healthcare and social services.”
Recently, critics have also expressed outrage at sections of Bill C-31 that limit health care for refugees, removing access to supplementary services such as pharmaceutical, dental, and optometric care. Claimants who have had their claims rejected and are awaiting appeal or deportation, will no longer have access to even basic health care, and will only be treated if their condition poses a threat to public safety.
Many of Labove’s peers are critical of Bill C-31, “I think many scholar activists are calling for us to get up and be angry about what’s going on.”
Unfortunately, these protests may be coming too late. According to Labove, immigration policy under both the Liberal and Conservative governments has been moving steadily towards prioritizing business over humanitarian obligations. “The bill as it stands now is not great, but the truth is that we’ve already allowed many of these policies to roll out.”
As the global political landscape evolves, so do the source countries and forms of persecution faced by asylum seekers arriving in Canada in hopes of refuge. In this ever-changing environment, seeking to strike a balance between national security, economic boundaries, and humanitarian obligations, continues to fuel important questions about Canadian refugee policy. While Canada's record of helping refugees is well established, our current system continues to be challenging and complicated, and Bill C-31 threatens to make the process even more difficult.
Something to consider while returning to work after a weekend of “understanding the significance of the citizenship we all share.”