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I recently attended an unfortunate anniversary event: it had been one year since the deportation of a family who were terrified of what awaited them if forcibly removed from Canada. Despite the passage of time, the emotions were still raw, tears flowed and hearts ached. Clearly, this deportation was traumatic not only for those directly forced onto a plane, but also for a whole community that awoke to find their neighbours had literally disappeared from their street, school, community and country.
Such trauma is induced daily across this country by a federal agency with zero oversight and accountability mechanisms: the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). The name is so blandly beige that it sounds more like a group of Good Samaritans assisting cane-carrying octogenarians through customs than an organization that terrorizes communities by treating non-citizens as suspicious at best and security threats at worst. The CBSA maintains what it calls a "removal inventory" that, though sounding like the waste products of a passenger airline, in fact represents children, women and men who have been ordered to leave the country. A large number of the "inventory" are individuals who have "failed" to be accepted by an unfair Canadian immigration and refugee system and who, at great cost, must be uprooted from their life in Canada to the nightmare that forced so many of them to flee to Canada in the first place.
Although it did not garner many headlines, some statistics released to Parliament last fall illustrate the toll of CBSA-created human misery. From 2006 until November 12, 2013, the "Grand Totals of Removals Executed" stood at 116,266. The use of the term "execution" is quite apropos: some of those who were part of the removals inventory wound up dead in the country from which they originally fled. We do not know exact numbers because the Canadian government does not keep track when it illegally sends people off to face torture and disappearance, but we do hear from advocates, family members and loved ones of such tragedies. Shot in the head and found by a roadside. Tortured. Interrogated and disappeared upon arrival.
Ordered to Syria, Egypt
The countries to which refugees are being ordered to return are not shining beacons of human rights. Among CBSA departure orders -- under which individuals must leave within 30 days -- were Egypt (245 in 2013, despite the brutal coup and crackdown), Syria (376 in 2012 and 415 in 2013, at a time when the Canadian government condemns Assad's war crimes) and Iran (a total of 500 since 2012).
The fear of return is so palpable that some individuals will choose death over the cruel future generated by deportation. Think of 40-year-old Eritrean refugee Habtom Kibraeb, who hung himself in a Halifax park when his options ran out. Another "failed" refugee claimant from Algeria set himself on fire outside an Edmonton federal building. And last fall, a London-area family of three -- Mohamed, Shyroz, and Qyzra Walji -- were killed in a murder-suicide following desperate attempts to avoid deportation to Tanzania. The family had been in Canada for 15 years, and feared discrimination against their daughter, who could not speak and suffered from cerebral palsy, but the Canadian government concluded such discrimination was wholly acceptable because, in its opinion, it did not "rise to the level of persecution." One could see a high and mighty Federal Court of Canada judge sending Rosa Parks back to Alabama in 1956 on similar grounds.
Meanwhile, the CBSA has long been engaged in beefing up a strategy to prevent asylum seekers from getting here in the first place, a clear violation of international and domestic law. The CBSA Multiple Borders Strategy -- a kind of "we own the world" approach -- extends Canada's borders to wherever CBSA wants them to go. Indeed, the CBSA "defines a border for immigration purposes as any point at which the identity of the traveller can be verified…[viewing] the border not as a geopolitical line but rather a continuum of checkpoints along a route of travel from the country of origin to Canada or the United States." Indeed, a listing of their overseas liaison officers and countries of responsibility indicates that for Canada, the border can include everything from Amman, Jordan to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Lima, Peru.
Canada physically blocking refugees
As part of this imperial destiny, the CBSA also hires and trains a group of shady characters to violate Canadian law. Numbering over 60 members, they have the blandly beige appellations of "liaison officers." Indeed, while the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act states that the Canadian refugee system is "in the first instance about saving lives and offering protection to the displaced and the persecuted," the five dozen CBSA officers have vigorously worked since 2001 in some 49 global locations to prevent over 73,000 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 the border 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 (now mayor of Montreal) 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."
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.
Some advocates argue that CBSA's overseas efforts to block asylum seekers are intended in large part to deny asylum seekers the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which they could claim upon stepping on Canadian soil. Equally, the overseas CBSA law-breakers preventing refugees from getting here may think that, if they are not within Canadian jurisdiction when engaged in this illegal activity, there are no legal repercussions, though the International Law Commission has found "responsibility ultimately hinges on whether the relevant conduct can be attributed to the state and not whether it occurs within the territory of the state or outside it." In any event, Canada does not seem to care: internal CBSA documents discussed in an excellent November 2013 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.
Subcontracting refugee 'interdiction'
In addition to the five dozen "liaison officers" who daily violate the various human rights instruments that are binding on them, Canada also subcontracts out this law-breaking by threatening private carriers that may be carrying individuals without proper documentation to Canada. As the Harvard study points out, "the threat of sanctions creates serious incentives for private carriers to err on the side of caution and block travelers who appear to lack proper identification from boarding Canada-bound planes or boats, without considering the possibility that they may be genuine refugees. It is widely recognized that carrier sanctions prevent asylum seekers from making refugee claims in Canada."
Some private carriers will go to extreme lengths to avoid penalties: it has been proven that asylum seekers have been thrown overboard on the high seas. (While numbers are hard to calculate since these events occur outside of Canadian waters, it is known that such cases have occurred on Canada-bound boats. In 1997, for example, a Nova Scotia court determined that, although there was sufficient evidence for a second degree murder trial, it did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case of seven officers of a Taiwanese vessel who threw three Romanian stowaways into the ocean before arriving in Halifax.)
Indeed, the federal government enters into a 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 the 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. As it concludes, "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."
Wanted: Harriet Tubmans
Even for those allowed into the country under programs such as the temporary foreign worker program, conditions are grim. While most people were nursing New Year's Day hangovers, the Harper regime inaugurated 2014 by declaring that a proposed ban preventing employers who had been convicted of human trafficking, sexually assaulting an employee or causing the death of a worker from participation in the program was being removed because it was deemed "too rigid and cumbersome."
With the Canadian government clearly acting illegally with respect to standard human rights commitments, the challenge for citizens is responding in a manner that protects the rights of asylum seekers who either face deportation and/or need to get here safely. The need for church sanctuary is greater than ever, yet few places of faith will open their doors. The need for an underground and overground railroad that will also provide safe spaces for those facing deportation is an equally compelling challenge that we need to meet as well. Every schoolkid hears the story of Harriet Tubman leading the persecuted to the Promised Land. We need more Harriet Tubmans who will work to keep them here.
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.
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