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Government stops thousands of refugees far from Canada's borders -- Harvard study

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Roma refugee mother and child in Toronto

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The Canadian government is so anxious to keep refugees away from this country that it has instituted a rigorous system to prevent would-be refugees from ever getting here in the first place.

The rules of the Convention on Refugees, of which Canada was a charter signatory more than six decades ago, state clearly that once people arrive at your doorstep claiming refugee status you cannot merely send them away without a fair and comprehensive hearing.

The Harper government has twisted the meaning of "fair hearing" to penalize a great many asylum seekers, especially those from an arbitrarily determined list of "safe countries." The process for those "safe country" claimants is impossibly short and their opportunities for appeal are virtually nil.

But both the current Conservative government and the Liberal government that preceded it have been working quietly and systematically for well more than a decade to keep as many refugee claimants as possible away from our shores and completely away from Canada's refugee determination system.

'Pushing the border out'

A year ago, the Immigration and Refugee Law Clinical Program at Harvard University's Law School published a study which shows how Canada has instituted a series of extraordinary measures to stop potential refugees long before they ever get close to Canada.

The study is called "Bordering on Failure: Canada-U.S. Border Policy and the Politics of Refugee Exclusion."

The authors, Efrat Arbel and Alletta Brenner, show that what they describe as 'failure' is all part of a policy the government openly describes as "pushing the border out."

That policy's aim is to identify undocumented persons, or others whom Canada, for a variety of reasons, would like to prevent from entering the country, long before they board an airplane or boat or bus destined for Canada.

Lacking documents is, and has always been, a central fact of life for a great many refugees. That is why the Convention on Refugees stipulates that signatory countries may not penalize asylum seekers who lack proper papers or documentation, or who, in other ways, do not fulfill the standard requirements for immigrants.

Refugees are deemed to be desperate people, fleeing for their lives in many cases, and the Convention specifically provides that it would be perverse to impose all kinds of impossible-to-fulfill bureaucratic requirements on them. 

But there is a catch to that rule, or, at least, Canada seems to think so. The Canadian government believes that when it stops potential refugees outside of the country it does not need to give any consideration to the merits of their case.

It does not need, in fact, to even hear their stories. Canadian officials can simply deny them access to Canada for a great many administrative reasons.

Just the other day consular officials at the Canadian High Commission in Pakistan denied a visitor's visa to an Afghan artist who had been invited to Canada to show and talk about her work, on the ground, in part, that she might seek to stay in Canada. This artist had visited many other countries, including the United States, and always returned home. That did not move the Canadian officials.

'Liaison Officers' work in 63 countries to keep refugees far from Canada

The Harvard study shows how Canada has set up a system to "catch" folks who might try to seek Canada's protection before they leave their countries of origin. This can happen at the visa screening stage, at airports and other points of embarkation, or even onboard airplanes or other modes of transport.

There are Canadian officials posted overseas whose primary responsibility is to vigilantly prevent people who might become refugee claimants from getting visas or boarding planes or boats destined for Canada.

As the study puts it:

"Canada currently positions 63 officers in 49 strategic locations around the world. 'Liaison Officers' [as they are called] train and work with airlines local immigration authorities, and local law enforcement agencies to identify improperly documented persons, including asylum seekers and block them from boarding Canadian bound boats or planes."

The study calculates that Canada's Liaison Officers "intercepted" 73,000 such people in the period from 2001 to 2012.

"Egregious consequences can occur when Liaison Officers intercept asylum seekers in countries that are not signatories to the Refugee Convention..." the Harvard study notes. "When this occurs, asylum seekers may be arrested, detained or returned to countries where they face persecution, torture or death."

Sanctions against transport companies can have frightful consequences

Canada also puts pressure on airlines, shipping companies and others in the transport business by applying sanctions if they carry foreign nationals without "proper documentation" to Canada.

The result of this policy is that private transport businesses sometimes engage in what the authors call "improper conduct" to avoid incurring sanctions.

Arbel and Brenner tell distressing stories of how ship's crews have put stowaways onto flimsy lifeboats at sea or simply murdered uninvited 'intruders' and tossed them overboard. When such cases have come before Canadian Courts, judges have ruled that they lacked jurisdictional authority to hold anyone responsible.

The study focuses, as well, on Canada's Safe Third Country agreement with the United States. That deal means refugees from far-away places cannot come to Canada through or from the United States. If they try, they are sent back stateside.

That may sound reasonable enough, except for the fact that, as Arbel and Brenner explain, Canada's policy ends up reinforcing some of the worst flaws of the United States' refugee system. Many of those sent back to the U.S. (including children) end up in detention. In Canada they would have been able to live in the community and lead something resembling a normal life

It is worth noting, again, that these practices are not exclusive to the Harper government. They started with the Chrétien and Martin Liberals.

The Harper Conservatives have added many new harsh measures aimed at refugees that the Liberals have opposed. But one senses a measure of schizophrenia on the part of Justin Trudeau's party on matters, like the treatment of refugees, which might present political risks.

We have not heard any detailed refugee and immigration policy pronouncements from any of the opposition parties yet, although the NDP seems somewhat more open than the Liberals to at least listening to the views of refugee communities and the Canadians who advocate for them.

Some of those folks are meeting now in Gatineau, under the rubric of the Canadian Council for Refugees, and political advocacy strategies are on their agenda. They will have a lot to talk about.

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