'Refugees Welcome' rallies shine light on Canada's exclusionary immigration policies

| September 8, 2015
Photo: Fatin Chowdhury

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"You have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land," says Somali-British poet Warsan Shire.

Amidst Syria's current refugee crisis, Shire's words ring truer than ever.

The world mourned as it learned of the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who was discovered lifeless on a Turkish shoreline. Anger stirred further as the deaths of his five-year-old brother Galib and their mother Rehana became public as well. The Kurdi family was attempting to escape the destruction of the Syrian civil war. Only their father Abdullah survived.

After false reports of Canada rejecting refugee status of the family, all eyes turned to us, questioning why this happened at all. Regardless of the validity of the reports of refugee claims, the refugee crisis in and around Syria is one of the largest since the Second World War and needs to be addressed.

To this date Canada has accepted only 2,300 Syrian refugees. And, according to press release from Never Home, "the number of refugee claims in Canada decreased by 50 per cent and the number of accepted refugees dropped by 30 per cent between 2006 and 2012." 

Sozan Savehilaghi is a Kurdish community member and organizer with No One is Illegal, an organization that describes itself as an "anti-colonial migrant justice group" organized by individuals who are of migrant and/or racialized backgrounds. This group also organized "Refugees Welcome" events across the nation in response to the Kurdi family deaths. These events are organized in cities across Canada until mid-October.

 Fatin Chowdhury

Photo: Fatin Chowdhury

"We strive and struggle for the right to remain, the freedom to move, and the right to return," states the website.

The cross-country mobilizations are meant to raise awareness of the crisis in Syria, as well as Canada's own immigration and refugee policies. Standing in solidarity with refugees and migrants and acknowledging that, in many instances, the path to citizenship is purposely made difficult, is a priority of these events.

"[Our organization] has been concerned about this for a long time," says Savehilaghi, "It's sad that it took such a tragedy to get people talking about this."

Savehilaghi states that Canadians must be reminded that our country has been entangled in the crisis long before the tragic deaths of the Kurdi family.

"We have politicians going on TV and shedding tears but, where were all of these politicians when these problems were starting, or when other instances of this happened? This isn't an isolated incident. Things like this happen all the time."

According to the publication Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration, published by the International Organization for Migration, approximately 40,000 refugees and migrants have died trying to flee since the year 2000.

Researchers have identified over 100 new immigration policies in Canada since 2002. This is a stark change from the mere 19 policy changes between 1867 and 2002.

In Canada, Bill C-31, professionally known as Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act, informally referred to as the Refugee Exclusion Act by some activists, has drastically transformed immigration.

Implementing shorter periods to establish claims coupled with the minister of immigration declaring many countries from which refugees are fleeing as "safe" -- regardless of one's personal circumstances -- has greatly hindered the process of those seeking asylum in Canada.

Occasionally those with permanent residency end up losing their status if the immigration minister deems them among those who no longer require protection. These are just a few significant changes to Canada's immigration and refugee policies.

 Fatin Chowdhury
Photo: Fatin Chowdhury

The nature of immigration and refugee policies are multifaceted and often have a racist or xenophobic tinge to them. Savehilaghi reminds us of past incidences of discrimination at Canada's borders.

"I remember when Tamil refugees got on the coast of [British Columbia] and we had Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Jason Kenny, who was Minister of Citizenship and Immigration at the time, saying words like 'terrorist' and 'bogus refugees.'"

It's a pattern that transpired in 1987 when Nova Scotia saw Sikhs on their docks and again when migrants from China reached British Columbia's coast in 1999.

The Canadian government has deported approximately 117,531 individuals since 2006. While our government has substantially cut funding to migrant health care and immigration services by $53 million, we have still managed to spend over a quarter of a billion dollars over the span of five years to detain migrants. Our government has detained over 87,000 migrants, including children, since 2006.

"I've been asking myself this a lot lately. What would have happened if [the Kurdi family] had reached Canada -- against all odds -- let's say they got here, what would have happened? They may have been held in a detention centre for up to 12 months -- including the children. That's a part of legislation, too," explains Savehilaghi.

German residents have convinced their government to allow over 800,000 Syrian refugees to seek asylum and more than 11,000 Iceland residents offered their homes in an effort to raise the government's asylm seekers cap. While in 2013, Canada only accepted about 5,790 in total. In 2014, the number was just over 9,000.

However, this year, with the images of Alan, Galib, and Rehana Kurdi revolving through our news cycles, we are forced to acknowledge the weight of the destruction of Syria's civil war. Since it began in 2011, it has killed over 250,000 and left over 12 million displaced.

Organizer Sozan Savehilaghi leaves us with words of encouragement.

"[Through events and activism] people are coming together in solidarity with migrant workers and refugees. People need to call up politicians and talk about these exclusionary, racist immigration policies."

 

Ashley Splawinski is a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. You can visit her personal blog www.lionpolitics.tumblr.com and follow her on twitter @asplawinski.  

Photo: Fatin Chowdhury

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