Canadian refugee stance puts international reputation at risk

Approximately two weeks ago, a migrant ship carrying 87 Sri Lankan Tamils was intercepted in Indonesian waters by the local marine police. Although the people on board have indicated that they were seeking asylum in New Zealand, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has claimed that the ship’s intended destination was Canada. Kenney is applauding the work of Indonesian authorities, happily stating that “they’re responsible for the disposition of the passengers aboard the ship.”

Kenney’s attitude toward refugees (best remembered with his infamous phrase “Canada isn’t a hotel”) has been rightfully criticized in the past few years. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were approximately 43.7 million people who were forcibly displaced in 2010 — the highest number in 15 years.

However, a report in March 2011 by the UNHCR has found a 30 per cent drop in the number of applications for asylum in Canada. In the past, Canada has developed a strong reputation for its humanitarian efforts, being awarded the Nansen medal in 1986 by the UNHCR for its contribution to the protection of refugees. Despite these facts, Kenney is taking unreasonable steps toward limiting the rights of refugees and discriminating against applicants.

After the arrival of 492 Tamil refugee claimants in August 2010, the Canadian government vowed to take further steps to punish refugees who are deemed “illegal.” This culminated in the Conservative Party’s introduction of Bill C-49, the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act, which would modify the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This bill, which was proposed as a way to deal with human smuggling, gave the federal immigration minister the authority to detain refugee claimants deemed “irregular” for up to a year and deny them welfare and public health insurance coverage. Thankfully, the bill was struck down, with critics claiming that it would never survive a legal challenge against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that it gave Kenney too much discretionary power.

On June 16, however, Kenney introduced Bill C-4, an updated version of Bill C-49. Kenney has admitted part of his strategy for preventing human smuggling operations is to make Canada a less desirable destination for refugee claimants. Disregarding the fact that refugees often do not choose their destinations based on existing policies, many claimants also have no idea what the asylum policies are in a specific country before arriving there. Rather than preventing smuggling, Bill C-4 would discriminate against and punish an undefined group of claimants by mandatorily detaining them for a year, without the possibility of independent review.

It would also deny them reunification with their family, regardless of age, the right to health care and the right to travel for five years, should the Minister of Public Safety decide to label them as “designated foreign nationals.” Even if the designated individual is eventually recognized as a refugee, he or she would be denied permanent residence for five years. The bill goes even further, infringing on the rights of all non-citizens by granting the government the power to arrest and detain them if the government merely suspects criminality. Given the number of non-citizens in Canada, this sudden policy change is outrageous.

With the increasing number of individuals requiring a safe haven, Canada should be taking steps to facilitate the increasing need, rather than imposing unreasonable measures. Jason Kenney is choosing to ignore that similar policies implemented in other countries, such as Australia, have been unsuccessful in deterring human smuggling, making it highly unlikely to be successful here. Canada must uphold its commitment to the international efforts in providing assistance to those in need of re-settlements, as it pledges to do in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Should Bill C-4 pass and Kenney’s attitude towards refugees become the norm, Canada will definitely be unable to do so.