Decades of Declining Refugee Protection in Canada Under Harper

Harsha Walia of No One Is Illegal and Gloria Nafziger of Amnesty International discuss the election rhetoric around refugees and how Canada could dramatically improve its resettlement programs

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper committed to accepting 10,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Iraq and Syria. But according to UNHCR there are 61 million people displaced around the world, and 16.7 million refugees need to be resettled immediately. During this election season, Harper seized the empathy of the people by claiming that Canada is the largest per capita refugee receiver in the world. Let’s have a look.

CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER: Canada is the largest resettler of refugees per capita in the world by far. And we will–and we will continue to do what we can to help. I’m obviously encouraged by the fact that so many Canadians do want to help in this particular crisis as in all things. Look, at the same time we are going to act prudently. We are going to make sure–you know, there are 15 million people. We cannot bring them all. We are going to make sure we identify the most vulnerable people from the most vulnerable groups. We also are going to make sure here when we’re talking about a significant number of people who come from a terrorist war zone, we’re going to make sure that all screening is done to make sure we protect the security of Canada and Canadians.

PERIES: Well, a recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that’s CBC, article citing UNHCR statistics found Canada to be the 41st, not the first per capita recipient of refugees in the world. Today we are going to explore whether Canada’s response is adequate given the resources it has as a nation and the refugee crisis that the world is now facing. Let’s drill down.

For that I’m joined by two guests. First I’m joined by Harsha Walia. She is a social justice activist and journalist best known for co-founding the Vancouver chapter of No One Is Illegal. She has authored Undoing Border Imperialism. And we have Gloria Nafziger. She’s a refugee coordinator at Amnesty International, and specifically works on the Canadian refugees who face removal to countries where they are at risk of persecution. I thank you both for joining me today.

HARSHA WALIA: Thank you.

GLORIA NAFZIGER: Thank you.

PERIES: And so Harsha, let me begin with you first. Do you think accepting 10,000 refugees with so many more displaced is an adequate response on the part of Canada?

WALIA: No, it’s absolutely inadequate. Because as you said, the numbers are staggering. We’re in the largest mass displacement on the planet since World War II with upwards of 60 million people displaced around the world. And there’s a, with the specific numbers of 10,000, which is already unclear how many exactly Harper is going to accept and how immediate that is, one of the main concerns with that of course is that there is currently in Canada a ceiling for the number of refugees who can come to Canada under the refugee resettlement program.

One of the main concerns with Harper’s announcement is that, and it’s already a vague announcement to begin with, but one of the main concerns is that it’s unclear whether those 10,000 are on top of the existing ceiling or whether that announcement is going to be subsumed within the existing ceiling, which of course would then mean that refugees who are trying to be resettled form other countries, particularly parts of Africa and parts of the Middle East would then not be able to come to Canada. So it would mean that Harper’s actually not really making an additional announcement of anything, it would just be within the existing numbers.

And another thing that’s really concerning which we heard in the clip that you shared is you know, when Harper really plays up and into this idea of refugees being terror threats. This is something that we’ve seen particularly under this government consistently. When the boat of Tamil refugees came, the two boats in 2009 and 2010, one of the first things that the government said and really spread in mainstream media was the idea they were all terrorists, they’re a part of the Tamil Tigers, and this included women and children.

And so there’s been a really–not just under this government, but particularly under this government there has been a linking, a really problematic, stereotypical linking of refugees as being a terror threat, which really hinders the ability of refugees to come to Canada. It affects the way in which the public views refugees. It means refugees are stuck in years and years of red tape around security screenings, and it also means that the government is going against every international standard to essentially say we’re going to prefer minorities from the Middle East who are not Muslim. And so there’s an explicit prioritization of preference under this government for, for example, Christian Syrians over Muslim Syrians, and other minorities who are non-Muslim. And so that has also been part of Harper’s announcements at different times when it comes to Syrian refugees.

So all of this is really troubling and deeply inadequate, and also deeply discriminatory.

PERIES: Gloria, your response to Harper’s alarmist message in terms of associating refugees and terrorism in the same sentence, of course, is not very receptive to the refugee crisis that ordinary people are facing, in a zone that is highly terrorized and where people are actually trying to flee that area.

NAFZIGER: Yeah, I have to agree with Harsha’s comments on this. I think it’s been very sad over the last number of years, the language which this government has used in order to refer to and to talk about refugees. And it’s really been a message of planting a seed that if they’re not people that we should be afraid of, they’re certainly people that we can’t trust. And the word bogus has often been used when you use the word refugee as well.

So overall the government response over a number of years has been disappointing. It’s not just this crisis that’s come to our doorstep, but it’s been a constant sort of whittling down of protection for refugees in Canada over a long period of time. And it’s been reflected in various pieces of legislation that have been passed in the last number of years that have really dramatically impacted not only refugees’ ability to get to Canada, but the way they are treated once they are here.

With respect to the resettlement of refugees, you know, it’s an opportunity for a government to be a leader. There is enough room within the legislation that they have to come up with creative initiatives and programs. They don’t need new laws to do that. They’ve got all of the tools that they need. If they would choose to be leaders, they would be leaders. Canada has chosen to be a leader in the past. We’ve got a proud history of having accepted refugees from so many different regions of the world. We talk about the 1979 Southeast Asian movement of people, we talk about the Hungarians, we talk about our response to Kosovo.

There are so many examples that most Canadians are very proud of, and I think it’s deeply shocking for them to realize that the identity that they’ve assumed we have of being a welcoming nation is not they’re seeing reflected in the messages that the government is providing today.

PERIES: Gloria, give us a sense of what kind of screening actually takes place in order to address what Harper is saying there in terms of, that we are going to be prudent in terms of the screening process that these refugees are fleeing highly–source countries where apparently terrorists come from.

NAFZIGER: Sure. Well, all refugees are screened when they come to Canada. And there is a, within Canada when we have an inland refugee determination process, we screen people out within 30-45 days. So the idea that we need to be screening people out, that it’s somehow an arduous, lengthy, time-consuming process is really a fallacy. If there are flags that are raised they can be moved to a secondary inspection. But we have to look at the population of people that we’re referring to in this movement of refugees as well. And by and large what we’re looking at are single women, we’re looking at children, we’re looking at women who have been victims of trauma and rape. We’re looking at families. We’re not looking at a population of people that on the face of it pose, or should be posing, a threat to Canada in any way, shape, or form.

And certainly the response of our European countries, Germany in particular, they have not put up large barriers in terms of threats that they’re feeling through the, by having intense and timely and lengthy security screening measures. So there are ways in which those security screens can be done quickly, and they should be definitely not be a barrier to the movement of, to the resettlement of refugees. As I said before, we have the tools and the ability to do this, and it’s just a matter of will.

PERIES: Harsha, given that we are in a campaign season at the moment is there a platform on any other party’s agenda in terms of addressing refugees that seems more receptive to the number of people that want to come to Canada?

WALIA: I’d say not particularly. I mean, certainly the Syrian refugee crisis that has been catalyzed in the Canadian media in particular, and amongst ordinary Canadians there’s been over 30 mobilizations just in the past few weeks across Canada, around the idea of refugees welcome and open the borders to refugees. And so other parties have responded with the kind of, I would argue, just the simple platitudes of we need to be more welcoming.

But when it comes to the overhaul of the entire refugee system, not just the issue of refugee resettlement of Syrian refugees, but the entire picture of immigration and refugee policy that Gloria was alluding to, no party has really talked about that in any substantive way. And so right now in Canada we have an extreme whittling down of the refugee protection system. The number of people who’ve been able to make refugee claims in Canada has decreased by 50 percent. The number of refugees on top of that, the number of refugees who are accepted by Canada has decreased by 30 percent. And then on top of that the refugee resettlement program, the number of people who came as privately sponsored refugees, has almost doubled from 30 percent of the ceiling to approximately 60 percent of the ceiling. And the number of government-assisted refugees has dropped as well.

Looking at all of that together in terms of a decrease of the number of people who are able to make refugee claims in Canada, the number of refugees accepted in Canada also decreasing, and on top of that an increasing number of refugees having to come under private sponsorships rather than as government-assisted refugees, all in all that whole picture has not really been addressed by any political party. And those are just the statistical numbers. Behind all of that is a story, behind all of that is further legislation such as the cuts to refugee healthcare, a complete overhaul of the system in 2012 under what we call the Refugee Exclusion Act that really enforces shorter timelines, much more punitive grounds for detention, including incarcerating children as young as the age of 16.

So all of that all together, just in terms of changes to the refugee system, have not been addressed by any political party. And then just to expand even broader from that, on top of that there’s just been a number of other changes not only for refugees, but also for immigrants, which makes it easier for people to lose their permanent residency. The number of even refugees who are accepted into Canada, the number of them who have lost their protected status has quintupled under what’s called cessation. I won’t get into the details of it, but we’ve had drastic changes under the immigration and refugee system as a whole over the past decade. And so no party has addressed all of those changes as a whole in any substantive way.

PERIES: Gloria, is the reason being used for this kind of decline in terms of acceptance of refugees and also defunding of the refugee programs and settlement programs and healthcare, for example, is this all due to the declining economic situation in Canada?

NAFZIGER: You know, I can’t–I don’t think that you can attribute it to a declining economic situation. I think that the research shows that immigration and immigrants and refugees in fact are value-added to Canadian society. And if you invest in them by providing the adequate services and support up front, you get–you get that back tenfold further down the road. So to try to use an economic argument for a reason why we should not be receiving and welcoming refugees I think is really misguided in every way.

I think, again, it’s a question of leadership and it’s a question of how we want to respond to the people, the most vulnerable in the world. And I don’t think economic arguments really cut it.

PERIES: And if you could advise one of the parties to have a more robust immigration policy, give me what are some of the key notes you’d be hitting.

NAFZIGER: Well, I think Harsha alluded to some of the very serious changes that have happened in the Refugee Protection Act in the last few years, and some of those things have really closed the doors to refugees.

We have a concept which his called designated country of origin, or a safe country of origin, which talks about the idea that if you come from a certain country, in this case–in the case of Canada, for instance, Mexico or Hungary, those are considered safe countries that don’t normally produce refugees. Amnesty International rejects the concept of safe countries of origin upfront. And that’s a part of our law now, and we would ask that that piece of the legislation be removed, that all countries immediately be delisted. There’s absolutely no reason why any country should ever be considered a safe country of origin.

There are other changes that were made to the act that require that people get treated differently in terms of timing and processing depending on how they arrived in Canada and where they’ve come from. Those pieces of legislation need to be changed so that all people are treated equally under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. When they come to Canada and request asylum there shouldn’t be differences based on their country or origin, or how they arrived in Canada. There are some very, very punitive measures that deal with possible detention of people for having arrived with the aid of smugglers in Canada. Those detention provisions need to be removed.

There’s no end of changes that need to be made, and as Harsha said, it would be an excellent opportunity for politicians to be really not just talking about resettlement and generosity to the current refugee crisis, but to also be talking about what a more humane Canada would look like and what a more humane refugee policy in Canada would look like for all refugees that come here.

PERIES: Harsha, last word to you. What would a robust refugee and settlement plan look like?

WALIA: Well, it’s a funny question for me because I come from, I’m part of a movement called No One Is Illegal, so certainly for us there are a number of policies that need to change, but also it’s about transforming this entire system. Which really gives people based on the privilege of birth the access to citizenship in a Western country. I think we can’t talk about refugees and refugee resettlement without looking at the causes of displacement. So on the one hand when we’re talking about the Syrian refugee crisis, it’s so necessary to have emergency measures in place to address the displacement of Syrians, but it’s also necessary to talk about, why is there displacement in Syria and what is Canada’s role in it.

So for example, Canada has been engaging in a bombing campaign in Syria in violation of the UN’s own charter. And this is also the case, you know, Canada has a hand in a lot of displacement. Certainly not only responsible but at least partially responsible in a number of displacements around the world, when we’re looking at these 60 million people. And also–so we need to talk about generosity, but also to look at complicity so that when, you know, from my perspective we can’t look at it simply as Canadians being benevolent, but also looking at what is our role in producing refugees, and therefore it’s more of an issue of our responsibility and a need to respond to something that we have a role in creating.

And also looking at, you know, who are we as Canada, as a nation that’s founded itself as a colonial state, that has settled itself on indigenous lands, what is the jurisdiction and authority of this government to decide who can stay and who can’t? So from my perspective when it comes to issues of immigration and refugees, we really need to be talking about permanent residency rights and full protections for people who are migrating. And especially in the context of Canada, we’re not just looking at refugees.

But in general if we look at people who come to Canada, more and more people are forced to come on a temporary basis, on a conditional basis, including refugees. And so we need to be talking about full permanent residency rights and full protections, including things like labor protections and access to services. Good jobs, living wage, et cetera, for all people who are trying to migrate in a search of safety and dignity for their families.

PERIES: Harsha Walia, thank you so much for joining us today.

WALIA: Thank you.

PERIES: And Gloria, thank you for joining us as well, and we hope to have you back, both of you, very soon.

NAFZIGER: Okay, thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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