Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney says Bill C-4 will punish human smugglers, but in reality the law would punish refugees who have given up everything to reach Canada.
Last year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada unveiled a $500,000 monument at Halifax’s Pier 21 in memory of MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 Jewish refugees who were refused entry to Canada in 1939. The monument, The Wheel of Conscience, reminds Canadians of our collective responsibility to others.
But the reintroduction of an immigration bill that punishes refugee claimants for seeking refugee status in Canada suggests that we don’t seem to have learned much from the St. Louis.
Bill C-4 calls for a “balanced refugee reform.” In certain cases, the law would prevent recognized refugees from reuniting with their families or from traveling abroad to visit them, limiting their mobility rights for up to five years.
At the unveiling of the monument in memory of the MS St. Louis, Kenney said Canada “will never close its doors to legitimate refugees who need our protection and who are fleeing persecution.” Sadly, the new bill threatens to do just that by creating two categories of refugees: The first group is comprised of those government considers legitimate refugees — individuals who had the patience and the option to wait in refugee camps for up five years while their applications were processed. The second group comprises refugee claimants who are “queue jumpers,” which includes those who could not afford to wait and apply through the standard procedure either because there was no processing centre in the countries they fled or because they had to leave urgently to escape persecution.
Under Bill C-4, individuals whom an immigration officer might suspect of having committed a crime would be detained for a minimum of a year, even if they were not charged or convicted. Australia, which detains all of its refugee claimants while their applications are processed, is now conducting an investigation into more than 1,100 attempts at self-harm and suicide by detainees in 2010-2011 alone. U.K. detention centres also have a high rate of detainee self-harm.
Most worrying is children’s detention: In a recent issue of the Paediatrics and Child Health journal, some Canadian pediatricians point to previous examples of children’s detention in the U.K. and Australia, that show how detention will trigger scarring, permanent trauma on refugee children.
In addition to causing psychological harm to the detained refugee claimants who, having fled violence, would be treated as criminals, the necessary creation of new long-term detention centres in Canada to accommodate the high numbers of detainees would cost Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars. The 2008 auditor general’s report estimated that detaining and housing a detainee costs from $120 to $238 per day, based on 2006-2007 expenses. Based on this estimate, the cost of holding a single person in detention for 12 months will cost taxpayers up to $86,870.
Funding for such expensive infrastructure and punitive projects should instead be directed to expediting processing times in current immigration processing centres, hiring more staff, even opening new assessment centres if necessary, but not by abandoning Canada’s obligation to uphold the dignity and basic human rights of people who escape war and conflict.
The Prime Minister, the minister of immigration, and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews have repeatedly used the word “queue-jumpers” to delegitimize refugee claimants who come to Canada by boat. It is as if these so-called “queue-jumpers” who run for their lives were doing something illegal. Canada is one of the founding signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, which allows claimants to seek refugee determination once they arrive in the country. The Convention is based on the principles of “non-discrimination” and “non-penalization,” both of which are threatened by Bill C-4. Article 31 of the Convention states that refugees entering a country using irregular means cannot be penalized for fleeing conflict and persecution.
Confronted with the desperate pleas of the 907 Jewish refugees seeking shelter in Canada in 1939, prime minister Mackenzie King said that Jewish refugees simply weren’t a Canadian problem. Over 70 years later, when 492 Tamil refugee claimants sought protection from Canada after reaching our waters, Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended stringent laws to keep out refugees in difficult circumstances: “We are responsible for the security of our borders and the ability to welcome people or not welcome people when they come,” he said.
Can we claim today that desperate groups of people who make it to our waters are not our problem because they use different ways of entering the country? Should we detain and punish individuals, families and children who come to us for protection? If we allow Bill C-4 to become law, we will be responsible for this moral crime.