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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > December 2011 > Political Gains at a High Cost for Migrants

Political Gains at a High Cost for Migrants

Wednesday 30 November 2011, by Cynthia Beaudry

On June 16th, the Harper Government, formerly known as the government of Canada, introduced Bill C-4, formerly Bill C-49, the so-called "Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act." This bill will allow the Harper Government to enforce a series of severe punishments on certain groups of migrants, including arbitrary detention of children, the pregnant, the elderly, and the mentally ill for a minimum of 1 year. The bill has been widely criticized for violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as a number of Canada’s international obligations.

On the first day of Canada’s fall parliamentary session; this bill was at the top of the agenda. With a newly elected Conservative majority in power, it could only be a matter of time before it is adopted as Canadian law. In late September, Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney announced that he hoped the bill would be adopted by Christmas.

If the title of the bill does not ring a bell, you might recall the 30-second “anti-smuggling” video advertisement run during the Conservatives’ spring elections campaign. Condemned by the National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT) and No One is Illegal as racist#, the video featured photos of the MV Sun Sea carrying 492 Tamil asylum seekers and referred to the migrants as “criminals…abusing Canadian generosity.#”

Krisna Saravanamuttu, spokesperson for the NCCT, made public a no-fluff critique: "This election ad is xenophobic and borders on racism," "It is reminiscent of the political rhetoric used to turn back Sikhs and Hindus on board the Kamagata Maru in 1914, and Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis fleeing persecution in 1939. In these cases, refugees fleeing persecution were labeled "criminals" and vilified by politicians appealing to the worst instincts of Canadians to score political points and votes."

During the spring elections, the Conservatives accused their opponents of being “soft on human smuggling” for having killed this bill, and promised to reintroduce it after the elections without amendments.# Indeed, the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberal Party and the New Democrat Party finally rejected it when it was first introduced as Bill C-49, as a result of massive campaigning efforts from hundreds of Canadian NGOs, migrant justice groups, and a variety of Canadian associations.

These were not just “the usual suspects from the immigration industry,” an expression that Kenney likes to use to discredit his critics. On the contrary, the vast array of groups opposed to the C-4 legislation included well known human rights organizations such as the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International, the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group and the Ligue des Droits et Libertés, but also the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Church of Canada, and the Canadian Bar Association, to name just a few. Approximately two-thirds of all practising lawyers in Canada belong to the Canadian Bar Association.

Six months down the road, a new version of the bill is on the table, and with a Conservative majority in power the reasons to oppose Bill C-4 are stronger now than ever before.

The specifics of bill C-4 seem to be slipping under the radar in Canadian mainstream media and the Harper Government is succeeding at pushing through mass-arrest legislation shrouded in a discourse of preventing human smuggling. The adoption of this legislation will have real, devastating consequences on the lives of many, including refugees fleeing for their lives.

Bill C-4 would allow the Minister of Public Safety to “designate” a group of people if he “suspects” that the group has been smuggled into Canada for profit, or if examination cannot be conducted in a “timely manner.” The bill does not further define “group” – it could be as few as 2 people or a family.

Once a group of migrants is designated, everyone in the group will suffer an extensive list of severe punishments. They will be placed in immigration detention for a minimum of 12 months without review, if the person is not deported or recognized as a refugee first. In other words, Harper will have legalized the detention of immigrants for an entire year based on suspicion. This punishment will be applied indiscriminately to children, pregnant women, the elderly and the mentally ill and is in direct violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits arbitrary detention.

The detention of migrants is not a new phenomenon in Canada, but this bill would place unprecedented numbers of people in arbitrary detention. Canada is named on the International Detention Coalition’s list of priority countries for child detention. Over the last five years, an average of more than 650 children per year have been detained in Canada for immigration reasons. Detention can last for weeks, even months at a time. If Bill C-4 is adopted, we can expect these already devastating numbers to rise.

Currently, Canada has three Immigration Holding Centres: one in Vancouver, Toronto and Laval. When migrants arrive in other cities, they may be incarcerated in regular provincial and municipal prisons.

A growing body of evidence proves that detention can have severe and permanent mental health consequences on migrants. Pregnant women and children are particularly at risk. This is why hundreds of health professionals from across Canada have signed an open letter against Bill C-4, calling upon Members of Parliament to pay attention to history: “As clinicians, we see cases in which even short detention in Canada has long-lasting effects, especially on children…But the most striking evidence comes from Australia, which from 1999 to 2008 had policies very similar to those proposed in Bill C4. The results were disastrous. Women who gave birth during detention were often too depressed to adequately care for their babies. Young children frequently had developmental delays, major attachment problems, bedwetting, and nightmares. Many older children became severely depressed and would repeatedly self-harm and attempt suicide. Mental health problems often persisted even after release. One Australian study examined adult refugee claimants who had been detained for over 6 months and then granted temporary status. Three years post-release, the majority was still clinically depressed and had numerous post-traumatic symptoms such as intrusive, distressing flashbacks about detention.”

Apparently, Kenney has a very different understanding of what detention can be like for migrants. In a September Op Ed to the National Post, he wrote: “Temporary detention means that people fleeing brutal persecution will be safe, with access to generous food, housing and medical care while their refugee claims are heard swiftly — within three months after arrival under forthcoming changes to our asylum system#.” As if forced detention in holding centres or prisons were a legitimate form of housing, and a blessing at that.

To add insult to injury, designated foreign nationals will be denied the right to appeal their refugee claim if it is rejected. A refugee claim decision can be a mater of life or death. The Canadian immigration system is far from perfect. Saying yes to Bill C-4 would mean saying yes to deporting people to countries where they may be tortured, raped, or killed.

Under Bill C-4, designated foreign nationals will also be barred from applying for permanent residency for a period of five years after having been recognized as a convention refugee. For five years, they will remain in limbo, barred from applying to be reunited with their family. During this time, Canada will also refuse to issue a travel document to designated foreign nationals recognized as refugees. This is a blatant violation of article 28 of the Refugee Convention, which clearly states that governments must issue a travel document to refugees in order to allow them to travel outside of the country.

Article 31 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child states that governments should not punish refugees for illegal entry. Often, refugees don’t have a choice: they are fleeing for their lives! And even if people are not fleeing for their lives, many migrants leave their countries due to situations of poverty whose roots date back to violent histories of colonialism; all reasons are legitimate. As cruel as human smuggling operations can be, this is the high price that many are willing to pay to reach safety.

April 4th marks Refugee Rights Day in Canada, commemorating the moment in history when the decision was taken that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would apply to all people, including migrants. 2011 is also the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. It will indeed be a bittersweet day if the Conservatives succeed in convincing Canadians that violating migrant rights is the solution to preventing abuses in human smuggling operations.