Intolerable suffering of refugees' limbo in Canada

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As thousands continue fleeing war and persecution in a desperate attempt to find safety in Europe and North America, media and NGOs alike have improperly termed the daily stories of suffering, heartbreak and death at sea a "refugee crisis." Such language improperly places blame on those seeking asylum, and shifts attention from what even Stephen Harper ventured earlier this month were the "root causes" behind the mass movement of humanity.

Harper's ill-fated journey into the world of sociology -- he blamed ISIS for everything and then claimed bombing people was the answer -- was as off-track as blaming Martians for climate change. He never mentioned the brutal Assad regime in Syria, the torture chambers of American and Canadian-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, the bombing of Libya (supported by all major parties, including the NDP), the racist government of Hungary (which, in addition to erecting a border wall and refusing free passage, has its own issues with the violent repression of the Roma), and many other far more significant factors.

Root causes

If we are to look at root causes, the often horrific images filling our Facebook feeds and daily newspapers should force us to look at the real crisis: our discriminatory and unfair immigration and refugee system, and the many ways in which global barriers are created through xenophobic laws, border walls with barbed wire, and a discriminatory discourse that frames refugees as security risks. On a larger scale, Canadian economic, climate, military and corporate policies are contributing to intolerable conditions around the globe, whether it's mining companies terrorizing Central American Indigenous communities with armed mercenaries, supplying weapons to the world's most brutal regimes (like Saudi Arabia), tar sands exploitation leading to climate catastrophe, or propping up dictatorships like the regime in Egypt.

Indeed, our very way of life is dependent on globalized repression to guarantee a good return on our retirement investments, and when the victims of that system are forced to flee for their lives, we blame them for their problems, coming up with pathetic excuses for why we should not help them. We fail to ask what causes such desperation that someone would pay a smuggler an entire life's savings in the hope that a leaky boat will get them across the Mediterranean to safety.

At the same time, the Canadian economy runs in many respects on the labour of the "undocumented" and those brought to this country on a temporary basis who are unable to obtain permanent resident status. Because they are vulnerable, they work on the cheap, and don't complain about their conditions for fear of deportation.

In limbo in Canada

Those bemoaning the "cost" of bringing 10,000 or 50,000 Syrian refugees to Canada should ask how much it costs to needlessly destroy the lives of refugees who are already here and, because the system is so often rigged against them, rejected and placed under deportation order. The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) annually spends over $100 million to detain and deport human beings to the very countries that are producing the large refugee flow.

While all federal parties are touting their plans to bring Syrian refugees to Canada (a little late to the game, as the "crisis" has been four years in the making), little attention has been paid to the 1,000 or so Syrian nationals now in Canada facing deportation -- yes, deportation -- to Syria.

According to statistics filed in Parliament in the fall of 2013, almost 800 Syrian nationals were issued departure orders in 2012 and 2013, even though as of March 12, 2012, the CBSA had instituted what it calls "administrative deferral of removals" (ADR) for Syrians due to the chaos in that country. That number has likely topped 1,000 during the interim.

Lives on hold

Under the ADR, deportation is stayed -- not cancelled -- pending changes in Syria, where the Assad regime's war against the population remains the single greatest cause of a refugee flow that has topped 4 million people, with 7.6 million internally displaced people. Remarkably, Syria has yet to be placed on a list of moratorium countries -- to which no deportations can be effected -- and those facing ADR live in anxious limbo, never knowing if the next knock on the door could be border agents insisting that the time to leave Canada has arrived.

With lives on hold for years to come, compounded by the possibility of forcible return to a country devastated by war, members of the expatriate Syrian community in Canada are wondering why the Harper government doesn't extend to the hundreds of ADR Syrians already here the same resettlement promises (paltry as they are) it has pledged on the campaign trail to overseas refugees.

While the CBSA is not actively throwing Syrians onto airplanes, the long-term limbo faced by those unable to navigate the complex Canadian immigration system has taken a huge psychological, social and economic impact on a community that escaped the Assad regime but cannot move on with their lives.

The prospect of an eventual forced return to Syria -- be it next month or next decade -- is in many instances a death sentence hanging over their heads, a form of mental cruelty that could be solved instantly with a simple declaration that all Syrians facing such a fate be granted permanent residency immediately.

While the Harper government would claim that this is impossible because these individuals have "had their chance," a simple exploration of their cases would reveal the pathetic reasons and systemic errors behind their claims being rejected.

Imprisoned by inflexible policy

Take the case Ottawa's Dima Siam, a mother of three Canadian children who grows thinner by the day with worry that she may be forcibly torn from her family. Her husband, systems engineer Mohammad Al Rayyan, is exasperated that a simple misunderstanding has been used to refuse his sponsorship of his wife, who came to Canada on a visitor visa in 2012.

A Canadian citizen for 13 years, Al Rayyan says that his family was living in Syria in 2012 when it was clear the county was dissolving into civil war. They were contacted on half a dozen occasions by Canadian foreign affairs officials, who encouraged them to leave the chaotic country. Al Rayyan says overseas Canadians treated his family well and assisted them with the necessary paperwork, but once in Ottawa, that spirit of generosity dried up.

For less than three months, as they got their footing in Canada, the family was on social assistance, a fact that was held against them in the rejection of Al Rayyan's sponsorship application for his wife. That application was submitted in January 2013; had it been submitted a month later, after Al Rayyan received a job offer and left social assistance, the outcome would have been far different.

Even though Al Rayyan has paid back the assistance they received, Dima Siam is now under a deportation order, stateless and unable to travel (a Palestinian by birth, she grew up in the United Arab Emirates and attended university in Damascus). She is ineligible to attend subsidized ESL classes, nor does she have access to most health-care services.

Speaking through her husband as translator, she says:

"I have done nothing wrong at all to be issued deportation to Syria. Can anyone from the government tell me what I did wrong? I am wondering where women's rights are, where my children's rights are, where mothers' rights are, where human rights are? This is the most unfair and unjust situation I have faced in my life. It has made my life miserable."

"Although Canada is a safe country I am made to live anxious, worried and under constant threat of deportation, and this is not in the best interest of our children also. I have no idea how to solve this dilemma. I hope we find whoever is able to assist us."

As for Al Rayyan, he says the effect on his family is devastating. "Most times we don't sleep," he says.

"We are always thinking, 'what's going to happen, would should we do?' We get calls from the school. My oldest son, who was in Grade 1 last semester, is telling his teacher, 'I am so scared, I don't want to go to Syria.' His teacher is saying he keeps looking around, he is afraid someone is going to shoot him. He imagines bad things, because he saw a lot of people going to their graves when he was four in Syria."

"Even in the house, he doesn't dare to go to another room unless his mother or I am with him. We cannot focus. I cut back my hours at work. We keep hearing in the news Canada cares about refugees, they are saying they will bring people to Canada, but this is mental abuse to my wife, because she has been told she has to leave. What is she supposed to think? She is a university graduate. She could be a teacher by now if they landed her in the first place, but she cannot go to school and she cannot speak English. She is in prison here."

Minor technical issue = deportation

Another Ottawa family is experiencing similar stress. For 57-year-old Ahmed Alhaj, a minor technical dispute in emigrating to Canada has placed him under deportation order. Like many Syrians, he grew up outside the country in Saudi Arabia, but was unable to renew a passport because he had not performed military service in Syria, an affront that would deem him an enemy of the Assad regime. In an effort to get to Canada, he obtained a travel document by purchasing land and citizenship for himself and his son Abdullah in the Dominican Republic. (Canada has a similar program offering permanent residency within two years to investors willing to pump $2 million into the Canadian economy.)

While the Alhaj family received permanent residency in June 2004 when they arrived at Montreal's Trudeau Airport, in 2008 Ahmed and Abdullah were deemed inadmissible to Canada for alleged "misrepresentation." It appears that when they renewed their Dominican passports, Canadian immigration officials claimed that the documents had somehow been altered, unbeknownst to either man. While Ahmed Alhaj tried to get to the bottom of the misunderstanding, his family has undergone a seven-year legal battle to try to win back the men's status and gain citizenship. Only recently, the Canadian government dropped its case against Abdullah, but maintains that Ahmed must leave, even though the same set of facts applied equally to both.

Abdullah Alhaj says immigration officials argued it was all right for him to stay because his wife is from Quebec and it would be difficult for her to visit Abdullah if he were deported to Syria, but maintains that since Ahmed's wife is Syrian, no such difficulties would attend his removal from Canada.

While Ahmed plays a key role in the care of his grandchildren, he also deals with diabetes, hypertension and knee problems. As his lawyer points out in documents filed with the Federal Court of Canada, "any person removed to Syria may be at risk of aerial bombardment, attack, extrajudicial killing, chemical weapons attack, incendiary bomb attacks, disappearance or indiscriminate detention." 

Abdullah is frustrated, noting:

"My mom and dad are depressed and down all the time, and my mom gets horrible pains and headaches from all this stress. We don't want the government to put a hold on things so that we are 10 or 20 years established in Canada and then they tell my dad, 'Goodbye now.' They need to put the deportation order aside and let him apply for citizenship. This does not make any sense, they are destroying people's lives."

Destroying people's lives

It's not just refugee advocates and human rights groups who recognize the seriousness of deportation to Syria. Earlier this year, the Ontario Court of Appeal reconsidered the sentence of a young man originally from Syria, Amjad Nassri, who had committed a first offence as the driver in a bank robbery. His nine-month sentence was reduced because, under immigration law, any sentence over six months meant he would have been prevented from accessing refugee protection after serving his time.

In its decision, the Court asserted that Nassri, "who moved to Canada as a teenager, has no close connections in Syria, except for a grandmother in her 90s. The fresh evidence strongly suggests that [he] would be subject to mandatory military service upon returning to Syria, leading to his involvement in the civil war. There seems little doubt deportation to Syria would be highly traumatic and would put the appellant in a situation of extreme risk of physical harm or death. It is self-evident that depriving the appellant of the right to appeal deportation to one of the most dangerous places on Earth would be grossly disproportionate to this offence and this offender and would contravene the sentencing principle of individualization."    

Challenging intolerable cruelty

Meanwhile, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the landmark Carter case earlier this year on the legality of physician-assisted dying, the judges probably had little reason to believe that their reasons could apply equally to those currently facing deportation from Canada. In that case, the Court condemned laws that prohibit "physician‑assisted dying for competent adults who seek such assistance as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring and intolerable suffering," noting that such laws "deprive these adults of their right to life, liberty and security of the person under s.7 of the Charter. The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly."

The Court continued:

"An individual's response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person."

While the issue of physician-assisted dying tends to focus on people with physical ailments that are causing the intolerable suffering, the same analysis could be applied to the imposition of mental cruelty by the state on refugees living in limbo, who never know from one day to the next if they will be scooped up by border agents, detained, and deported to an uncertain fate that includes detention, torture, or execution. The answer here is not dying with dignity, but providing a means for those refugees to live with dignity. Indeed, living without status denies people autonomy over their own bodies and, it could be argued, contributes to cases of intolerable suffering.

As we have seen in discussions on torture over the past 15 years, there remains little understanding of the psychological damage done to individuals in solitary confinement or under indefinite detention. Those living in limbo, without status and often for years and, in some cases, decades, face a similar psychological torture: how are they realistically to get on with their lives knowing they will prematurely end because of bureaucratic decisions made without regard for the full human consequences? This applies not only to Syrians but also to tens of thousands of other individuals still in Canada, either living underground or waiting patiently as their cases grind through the bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, seeing the images of desperate refugees in Europe only adds to the stress of Syrians in Canada under deportation order. Abdullah Alhaj says he supports the pledges to bring more Syrians to Canada, "but let's start with the ones who are already here."

In all the rhetoric of the election campaign, it's a proposal that none of Canada's major political parties has yet to address.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years. A portion of this column has appeared in NOW magazine.

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