The false promise of Trudeau's welcome to refugees

Justin Trudeau at Pearson Airport in 2015 to welcome Syrian refugees. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Had Canada been home to a more caring and compassionate immigration system, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam might not have wound up as a grisly footnote in the case of suspected serial killer Bruce McArthur. The remains of the Tamil gentleman were found in a north Toronto planter this spring, three years after his family lost touch with him.

Kanagaratnam was one of the almost 500 Sri Lankan refugees who arrived on a ship off the B.C. Coast. The docking of the MV Sun Sea in 2010 sparked a racist outcry and calls for a crackdown on so-called "irregular migrants."

As the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) recalled:

"The passengers were subjected by the government to prolonged detention, intensive interrogation and energetic efforts to exclude them from the refugee process, or to contest their claim if they succeeded in entering the refugee process. Canada's immigration legislation was amended to give the government extraordinary new powers, many apparently unconstitutional, to detain people and deny them a wide range of rights."

Although two-thirds of those on board were found to be in need of protection, Kanagaratnam was not one of them (a comment not so much on the strength of his asylum claim, but more likely a reflection of the inconsistent and often biased decision-making by refugee board bureaucrats likely scared by then public safety minister Vic Toews' racist, patently false description of passengers as "people smugglers" and "terrorists").

In a 21st century "none is too many" moment (a reference to the Canadian government's turning away of a boatload of other "irregular migrants," Jews seeking asylum from Hitler's Germany in 1939 on the St. Louis, for which Trudeau hopes to apologize soon), Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) did everything in its power to keep the refugees detained on grounds of identity, even after identity documents had been received and confirmed.

Canada endangers lives

CCR recalled that the refugees were put at further risk when:

"CBSA instituted an additional verification procedure that involved an officer in Sri Lanka determining if the identity documents were properly issued by Sri Lankan officers. The procedure used was not disclosed, raising concerns that the identities of the Sun Sea passengers might be revealed to the Sri Lankan authorities."

In this overheated atmosphere, what choices would have been left to someone like Kanagaratnam? He could have returned to Sri Lanka and faced the risk of torture or murder by government forces, or he could have stayed on in Canada, living without status, a perfectly reasonable decision made by hundreds of thousands of people who live in hope of being "regularized" and provided permanent resident status.

After his refugee claim was rejected, Kanagaratnam appears to have lived without status because the alternative back home was too frightening to contemplate. When his family no longer heard from him, they were afraid to report his apparent disappearance for fear that if police did find him, he would be deported to a grave fate in Sri Lanka.

The precarious non-status Canadian journey can last years, decades even, with still no positive outcome. It's no picnic, as those without status are easily exploited by employers who use the threat of calling CBSA to force workers into unsafe situations with substandard wages and no access to benefits. They become part of an underground economy and existence, where a simple traffic stop by police can result in deportation to torture.

That uncertainty becomes heightened for women in abusive relationships, who may not call police for fear of being turned over to the CBSA. An abusive spouse may also threaten to call CBSA if a non-status woman tries to leave or report the abuser.

Deporting single mother of three

The Canadian government's cruel deportation of Montreal resident Lucy Granados to Guatemala last month is a case in point. A mother of three kids who fled gang-related violence in her home country, she was an active community member working for women's rights and the rights of those here as temporary workers or living without status. After a violent 6 a.m. arrest at her home last March by four CBSA officers, she was detained with untreated injuries to her arm and neck and deported. It was only because she had filed a humanitarian and compassionate application that CBSA was able to locate her and, rather than awaiting a decision by bureaucrats in Ottawa, the CBSA worked to spirit her out of the country.

Ironically, Montreal had declared itself a sanctuary city some 13 months before, but there was no safety for Granados from hyperactive CBSA officers. The men with the power to stop her deportation -- Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, and the tweeter-in chief Justin "Canadians will welcome you" Trudeau -- said nothing and did nothing.

After 50 people arrived at the Laval detention centre at 3 a.m. on the day of the deportation and blocked the main entrance, CBSA was so desperate to deport their still injured detainee that they cut through one of their back fences to take her away.

The gap between Trudeau's rhetoric and the reality for refugees in Canada continues to widen. Indeed, one of Justin Trudeau's many remarkably underperforming members of cabinet, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen recently insulted those seeking asylum when he told Global news: "We do not appreciate or welcome irregular migration."

U.S. not safe

But Canada's policies increasingly force those seeking asylum to take non-designated routes to claiming asylum because existing pathways are full of obstacles and barriers that can be impossible to overcome. Chief among them is the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement. As the CCR points out, "People seeking safety in Canada cross the border irregularly in order to avoid being sent back to the U.S. under the Safe Third Country Agreement, which closes Canada's door to most refugee claimants at the border with the U.S." (The agreement, which is premised on the unfounded notion that the U.S. is a safe country for asylum seekers, is currently being challenged in Federal Court).

While the recent crossing of refugees into Quebec and Manitoba has been couched by both uninformed media and a wide variety of politicians as illegal, the CCR reminds us that:

"international and Canadian law protect the right of refugees to flee to safety, including if necessary by entering a country in violation of immigration laws. This is based on the fundamental right, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to seek asylum from persecution in other countries (Art. 14). The United Nations Refugee Convention and Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act both say that refugees must not be penalized for breaking immigration laws in order to enter the country and seek asylum."

Still, there are those who object to refugees who arrive in a manner not considered acceptable by Canadian authorities. Few really know just how difficult it is to actually get here in the first place.

The Canadian government continues to invest untold millions in refugee interdiction, heading out onto the high seas and visiting a variety of countries to discourage those fleeing violence from coming to Canada. Recently, Canadian officials enjoyed a junket to Lagos, where they met with Nigerian authorities to discuss prevention of refugees coming here. Canadians have also gone to the U.S. to discourage refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti from thinking of Canada as a safe place, this at a time when Trump administration crackdowns are picking people off the streets and in their homes and sending them back to desperate futures.

For years, dozens of CBSA  "liaison officers" have violated a foundation of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (which states that the Canadian refugee system is "in the first instance about saving lives and offering protection to the displaced and the persecuted") by working in some 50 global locations  to prevent upwards of 100,000 of the world's displaced and persecuted from reaching Canada's shores.

Their job is to sniff out those using false documents (which a great number of asylum-seekers are forced to use, as recognized by Canadian and international law) and, working with overseas airlines and immigration authorities, prevent them from boarding Canada-bound boats and planes. The CBSA strategy to "push our borders out" means that anyone they may suspect is an "undesirable traveller" or who allegedly poses a risk to "Canada's security and prosperity" are identified as far away from the actual border as possible, ideally before a person departs their country of origin.

Because these "liaison officers" are not required to separate out those fleeing persecution from other migrants, it is not clear how many refugees have been returned to countries where they face arrest, persecution, torture and death. This is nothing new. In fact, Canada prides itself as a world leader in what is known as "interdiction," and assigns fancy names to those doing the dirty work. In a 2003 speech, then immigration minister Denis Coderre beamed that "in the past six years, our migration integrity specialists have stopped more than 40,000 people with improper documents before they boarded planes for North America."

Canada violates international law

As refugee rights lawyer Andrew Brouwer points out:

"Interdiction violates basic principles of international law. By preventing asylum-seekers from seeking and obtaining protection from persecution, interdiction flies in the face of the fundamental human right 'to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution' enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sending asylum-seekers back to their country of origin without examining their claim is also contrary to the bedrock international refugee law principle of non-refoulement (the principle that a country may not return a person to a place where they would face persecution or torture), guaranteed by Canada and other parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, the 1984 Convention Against Torture and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in addition to regional human rights treaties."

For overseas asylum-seekers desperate to come to Canada, the CBSA message is clear: you can't get there from here. The United Nations Refugee Convention prohibits Canada and other signatories from punishing individuals who arrive here ­or attempt to come here with false identity documents, a principle that is also part of Canadian law.

Canada does not seem to care: internal CBSA documents discussed in an excellent Harvard University report (Bordering on Failure: Canada-U.S. Border policy and the Politics of Refugee Exclusion) indicate the agency "does not sufficiently emphasize Canada's refugee protection obligations in the training materials delivered by Liaison Officers." Nor does it require its officers to assist those fleeing persecution or to ensure that those they intercept are not returned to persecution.

Indeed, the federal government continues its bounty arrangement with Canadian companies called the Airline Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Program, under which carriers will receive reduced administrative fees if they "reduce the number of improperly documented persons arriving in Canada." Hence, an airline will think nothing of kicking off a refugee with a false passport who is seeking asylum because, under the MOU, the airline immediately receives a 25 per cent discount on fees upon signing, with the promise of additional savings of 50-100 per cent of administrative fees "depending on the level of interdiction success as measured against the assigned performance standards."

With private airlines acting as deputized border patrol agents, there is a strong incentive that, when in doubt, sending refugees who have false ID back to torture chambers is a best business practice, resulting in lower costs and a better rate of return on investment, even if it makes airline shareholders complicit in international and domestic law violations.

The Harvard study covers a broad range of additional Canadian policies that are resulting, plainly, in lives being lost. Its conclusion from five years ago remains relevant today:

"Canada is systematically closing its borders to asylum seekers, and circumventing its refugee protection obligations under domestic and international law… By implementing and intensifying these measures, Canada sets a poor example for other countries, and contributes to the deterioration of refugee protection around the world.

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.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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