Every time Ottawa-based Syrian refugee Dima Siam sees Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying refugees are welcome in Canada, she says, “I feel as if someone despises me and slapped me on the face.”
Siam, whose husband and four children are Canadian, survives every day under the shadow of a deportation order to Syria because of a simple paperwork error that, despite being resolved years ago, continues to supply the immigration bureaucracy with the cruel rationale to carry on the same hard-hearted policies that marked the Harper regime.
For years, Siam has called on the Harper and Trudeau governments to allow her to live in peace with her Ottawa family, and over 22,000 people have signed a petition in her support. While she applauds the work of those Canadian officials who went overseas to facilitate the entry of thousands of other Syrian refugees, she wonders why she cannot meet one of those same officials in a downtown Ottawa office to resolve her limbo.
The painful reality of Dima Siam’s life hit home once again last week when she showed up at the Ottawa airport to welcome her brother-in-law and his family, Syrian refugees who had been sponsored by her husband, Mohammad, and the United Church. The new arrivals to Canada were welcomed with kind, loving arms by community members even as Siam contemplated the fact that her own temporary resident permit will soon expire and she is no longer eligible for post-partum health care.
A sour happiness
“I had mixed feelings,” she says, her husband Mohammad translating.
“Sort of sour happiness. On one hand, I was very happy for them because I knew how difficult their situation was in Syria when we were neighbours back then before 2013, and it was not easier for them in Lebanon when they had to flee Syria in December 2012. This is why I encouraged my husband to sponsor them and went with him to the church to ask if they could co-sponsor with us.
“On the other hand I am very sad for myself being ignored: my rights as a woman in need for protection by the former government continue to be ignored by the current government, although my husband did everything he could and submitted all different types of reunification applications for five years to help me get permanent status in Canada.”
Like thousands of refugees living a made-in-Canada limbo — including hundreds of Syrians under deportation order — Siam says: “I feel like being in a virtual prison. I have not been able to see my parents and brothers for 7 years. My parents have not seen two of my children at all, and the oldest two were babies when they last saw them. And when my mom applied to visit me when I gave birth to my last baby girl in December, 2016, to be by my side and help me with the kids, her visa application was rejected.”
A teacher with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Siam wants to work and “integrate into society,” but she cannot move forward while stuck in the immigration limbo. She’s only had health coverage for nine months over the last five years, and has had to cancel a series of post-partum medical appointments because her health card expired April 7. Although she has a humanitarian and compassionate application in the queue, her temporary resident status expires on June 7.
A dreamland turned nightmare
“To me Canada was like a dreamland based on what my husband used to tell me about it,” she says. “We did not come sooner when the war started because although my husband and children are Canadian citizens, I am not, and could not come with them. We only came to Canada when I was granted a visitor visa to accompany my husband and children and after I gave birth to our third baby.”
Needless to say, the threat of deportation to Syria, where Dima Siam would be at risk from all sides of the conflict, is psychological torture. It has resulted in depression, family stress — especially for the young children, who fear they too will be deported and who won’t stay in a room unless one of their parents is constantly with them — emergency room visits via ambulance, and a range of other afflictions due to a life of constant fear and uncertainty.
Stories like Siam’s get overlooked in an era where a simple Trudeau tweet garners international praise from sloppy newspaper editorial boards who thank the lord that he isn’t Trump, a low standard which is fairly easy to meet, if only on a rhetorical level. But on the practical, day-to-day level, Trudeau’s policies are a smiling version of Harper’s, continuing the endless grind of detention, deportation, and a refusal to regularize status for hundreds of thousands of people forced to survive in the shadows.
Nowhere is the cruelty of Trudeau’s hypocrisy more clear than in his refusal to cancel the Safe Third County Agreement. Following the chaos of the Muslim bans implemented by the Trump regime, 845 students from 22 Canadian law schools came together to conduct 3,143 hours of legal research to determine whether the U.S. can properly be considered a “safe third country” for asylum seekers and refugees. The research-a-thon was a valuable project given the increasing numbers of refugees who are forced to cross the Canada-U.S. border outside of regular ports of arrival, needlessly increasing their level of risk.
In a summary of their research, the law students found that “many persons seeking asylum in Canada who have entered from the United States face a credible threat to their security and fundamental rights if they are returned to the United States.” Among the threats for those returned to the U.S. are prolonged periods of immigration detention, limited legal access, and potential deportation to torture or death.
“Canada is in breach of the Canadian Charter if the United States violates the fundamental rights of asylum seekers who Canada has refused in accordance with the [Safe Third County] Agreement,” the researchers concluded. “In Canada, asylum seekers have constitutional rights to life, liberty, security of the person, access to counsel upon detention and procedural fairness. By returning asylum seekers to the United States, Canada violates those rights. Canada also breaches its own international legal obligations not to participate in possible indirect refoulement. The authors of this report believe that Canada’s continued participation in the Safe Third Country Agreement violates Canada’s constitutional and international obligations.”
Indefinite immigration detention
Of course, the reception for refugees who make it to Canada is not a rosy picture either, as witnessed by the ongoing detention of thousands of refugees annually, some for indefinite periods. At a court hearing in Toronto last week, Ontario judge Ian Nordheimer heard about the case of Kashif Ali, originally from West Africa, who has spent over seven years in immigration detention, with stretches in solitary confinement lasting over three months, beatings, and regular, humiliating strip searches. Nordheimer asked government lawyers whether Ali could be held for the rest of his natural life if his situation is not resolved. He received no direct response.
The utter disregard for the most basic human rights of those seeking asylum in Canada was revealed in a recent Toronto Star investigation that revealed border officers have no clue how to assess whether individuals should be detained in the first place, and that those being placed in maximum security jails for indefinite stays are often sent there by agents like the one who wrote in an assessment form: “I am not a medical or mental health professional. I have not received any training on the completion of the form. This assessment is cursory in nature and should not be construed as an accurate representation of the subject’s risk or mental health status.”
The results are predictably disastrous, and all too commonplace. As Global News reported earlier this week, one immigrant in detention spent over a year in solitary confinement for undefined “bizarre” behaviour, and by day 390 of being in the hole, he was assessed as “catatonic.” The UN defines 15 days or more in solitary as torture.
The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), which annually spends well over $100 million on detaining and deporting refugees, is considering potential policy changes with respect to immigration detention. Their National Immigration Detention Framework on the one hand talks about alternatives to detention, but also seeks an investment “in federal immigration detention infrastructure,” which essentially means that the government will continue to detain refugees, but with different buildings and what it alleges will be “improved conditions.”
From 2011-2016, the CBSA detained 38,868 human beings, including hundreds of children (554 kids were officially detained during 2014-16).
The Trudeau Liberals have contracted the Canadian Red Cross to conduct visits to immigration detention facilities, but their assessments are confidential and will only be shared with government officials, contradicting the CBSA’s promises of increased accountability and transparency. Last month, Senators Mobina Jaffer and Victor Oh called on Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to explain why the feds didn’t arrange for an independent oversight body or ombudsperson.
Meanwhile, Citizens for Public Justice published a report earlier this month documenting frustrations with refugee sponsorship, “A Half Welcome: Delays, Limits and Inequities in Refugee Sponsorship.” Based on interviews and a survey of Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAH), the report found:
“[t]he current protracted nature of application processing very concerning. Many also call for attention to the long wait currently impacting many non-Syrian applications, considering the government’s plan to resettle many Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016. SAHs consider this to be inequity in private sponsorship, and urge the government to ensure more balance in this regard. SAHs also raised concerns about the allocation limits placed on the resettlement of privately sponsored refugees in 2017, noting that this impedes refugees’ safety.”
But the problem facing refugees going forward is that Trudeau already got his photo-ops with the first arrivals of Syrian refugees. He doesn’t need them anymore. While they were welcome images, the airport photo shoot was indicative of the way he uses whole groups — women, Indigenous people, refugees, Muslims — as props for his own self-aggrandizement, garnering quick selfies that can be used for the 2019 election campaign and Liberal fundraising pitches. Trudeau says or tweets what he thinks are the right words, basks in the applause of those who praise him in comparison to Trump, and then trots off to New York meetings where fawning “journalists” ask where his Superman cape is. He is living the ultimate privileged white male fantasy, in which the oppressed of the world are asked to applaud this white saviour for paying lip service to their existence, without having to commit to anything real or substantive.
But in the real world, harm results from Trudeau’s policy choices. As the student research-a-thon concluded: “Under international law, a country cannot transfer refugees to a state it knows to be in violation of the Refugee Convention. The ‘Travel Ban’ and other executive orders are flagrant violations of the Refugee Convention and as such, Canada’s refusal to admit refugees at the U.S.-Canada border is itself a violation of international law.”
On an individual level, Ottawa’s Dima Siam says she sadly has little reason to be optimistic about her fate. However, she is quick to note that “what I have been through did not change the way I think of Canada, especially with all the positive and big-hearted people who have been supporting, fighting, petitioning for me getting justice and welcoming me in Canada.”
Photo: Dima Siam (far right, in white hijab, holding her baby, Maria), welcomes her brother-in-law and his family as sponsored refugees to Canada on April 12. Siam is fighting a deportation order that would send her to Syria, the result of a simple paperwork error. The Trudeau government has thus far refused to end her nightmare of limbo and grant her permanent resident status. Credit: Brian Cornelius
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.