Criminalizing refugees: The case against Bill C-31

| April 23, 2012
2010 Pilgrimage to Freedom march, organized by Justicia for Migrant Workers. (Photo: http://3907.cupe.ca)

Introduced under another signature defensive title, the Conservatives' Bill C-31: "Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act", combines exclusionary refugee measures from Bill C-4 (“Protecting Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System”) and Bill C-11 (“Balanced Refugee Reform Act”). Both C-4 and -11 were previously proposed but rejected by opposition while the Conservatives were a minority in Parliament.

Now with their full majority power, the Harper government is bringing in even harsher measures through Bill C-31, which was announced in February. Should the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, succeed in his goal to push this bill through by June, refugee claimants will be further invalidated, criminalized and endangered. The burden of the bill’s impact will fall on women, queer- and trans-identifying individuals and their families, and those fleeing from "safe" countries that are Canada's trade partners.

Impossibly short time frame for refugees

Under Bill C-31, refugee hearings will be expedited drastically to an impossibly short time frame of 15 days, slashed from 2-3 months under Bill C-11. Within just 15 days of arrival, refugees will have to navigate the impossible maze of finding shelter, legal counsel and interpretive services, and prepare to deliver their personal stories of hardship, loss, trauma and violence before an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) member at their first hearing, all in an unfamiliar environment and language.

These enormous tasks will be even more terrifying and humiliating for those women, children, queer- and trans-identifying refugees who are forced to "out" themselves to a stranger, revealing the intimate and often horrific details of their journey and life back home. Yet all of these details will need to be presented in hopes of convincing the largely desensitized, politicized and appointed members of the IRB.

Rejected claims (the vast majority) will now have even less chance of being successfully appealed. Denied access to safety, and retraumatized by the hearings process, many more asylum seekers who dreamed of security in Canada and protection under international law will be detained and deported back to the danger from which they fled.

All of these measures will have a chilling effect on families immigrating to Canada. The expedited process and lack of an appeals process will force families to make complex decisions that they may not fully understand in such a short period of time, especially considering the language barrier and culture shock. This sets claimants up for almost guaranteed failure.

Pattern of punishing refugees 

Bill C-31 promises to be the newest act in the continuing pattern of punishing refugees and their families. The bill establishes the inherent criminality of migrants and their families. For example, all migrants will be required to give biometric data, such as fingerprints and iris scans, to be held by the government indefinitely for uses which have not been revealed.

The bill also establishes inhumane penalties for those arriving in Canada through irregular processes, whom politicians call "illegal". In fact, those migrants are most likely to be fleeing ethnic or gender persecution, political violence, environmental destruction and livelihood breakdown.

Meanwhile, people flagged as “irregular arrivals”, suspected of human smuggling (say, for arriving in a group), or “designated” by the Minister in an arbitrary and unaccountable process will be held indefinitely in Canadian detention centres and prisons, then prohibited from applying to reunite with their families for five years. This means that family reunification for those who are actually granted refugee status will be delayed for approximately six to eight years. All that for seeking safety in Canada.

Detaining children?

Perhaps most shocking, there is no clause in this bill to prevent minors from being detained, which is already common practice in Canada, although a violation of international refugee law. Youth under 16 will be locked up without due process or a review for up to a year at the sole discretion of Minister Kenney. Families will have the “alternative” of sending their children into foster care while parents are detained. In many cases, parents and children will be immediately separated and prevented from seeing each other upon landing in Canada, possibly for the entire length of their incarceration, which is also considered contrary to international law.

And it only gets worse.

Bill C-31 includes a provision that makes immigration status conditional until full citizenship has been granted - a long, expensive and highly restricted process. Permanent Resident status, including Refugee status, could be revoked from individuals should Kenney Himself decide that either: the safety conditions in a refugee's country of origin (read: trade relations with Canada) have suddenly improved; a refugee's "behaviour" no longer indicates a need for asylum, i.e. if they return to visit family in safer areas of their home country, after having immigrated to Canada; a refugee is discovered to be a "threat to public safety" - a fear card that has been used without evidential backing on numerous occasions, recently and historically, by the government, to criminalize Muslims, Tamils and other people of colour; or, if a refugee has committed “immigration fraud” - again, this is to be determined solely by the Minister.   

Jason Kenney's subjective and politicized assessments of risk and safety, and sole discretion to make such decisions, could be potentially murderous. 

For example, Canada’s trade partnership with Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has the government turning a blind eye to some of the highest rates of murder and disappearances in the world. Stories of refugee claimants rejected and deported from Canada to their death in Mexico abound, such as the horrific tragedy of a woman named Grise in 2009. 

Permanent temporariness 

All of these measures are sadly consistent with Conservative efforts to push immigration status towards a state of permanent temporariness, breaking apart families. Remember the two-year moratorium introduced last November on new applications from grandparents and parents abroad wishing to be with their children in Canada? This has frozen the applications of 140,000 families who already have paid fees and been waiting for years to reunite.

Alongside the moratorium, a heroically-named Super Visa was introduced, accessible to only those who can afford to pay thousands for private health insurance in Canada, and who meet a minimum income requirement. A Super Visa holder can stay in Canada for just two years at a time, over a limited period of 10 years, after which the visa expires. The message is clear: only the well-to-do deserve to be with their families, and only temporarily.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC)’s recent public consultations on the redesign of the parent and grandparent sponsorship program employ the usual myth of an “overloaded” immigration system and an “overburdened” social services in order to sway public opinion against migrants. These reasons are cited for redesigning the program to limit family reunification, not the 5.3 per cent cut to CIC in the new federal budget, nor the increases in temporary migrant workers. 

It's time to voice our dissent towards an immigration system that breaks apart families, attacks the rights of children, and places the interests of refugees and im/migrants second to economic concerns.

The Harper-Kenney Conservato-fascist regime will not tell us when, how and under what conditions we can access safety or be with our loved ones. It's time to take to the streets and demand a radical overhaul of the way Canada manages immigration and an immediate de-securitization of the border.

Us Man is an organizer with No One is Illegal (NOII) - Toronto. Nadia Saad is a community organizer, visual artist, writer and social work graduate based in Toronto.

NOII is one of many groups participating in May Day actions for migrant and labour justice.

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Comments

I am aware that it is considered deeply offensive to compare a government like Canada's to certain previous undemocratic regimes. How far in this direction does Canada have to go before such comparisons become reasonable?

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