The recent case of Laibar Singh, a paralyzed refugee claimant, has created much debate and division. There is a strong outpouring of sympathy for Laibar Singh and his medical condition. However, the fundamental question turns on whether Canadian society has any “obligation” to support Mr. Singh, as he has exhausted all his legal avenues. In addition, much of the public perception around Mr. Singh has unfortunately been fuelled by inaccurate facts.

Firstly, Mr. Singh was never handed down a deportation order prior to the one he received in July 2007. He has, therefore, never been “illegal” in Canada before taking sanctuary at the Abbotsford Gurudwara. Prior to his aneurysm, Mr. Singh worked as a labourer in Montreal.

Secondly, Mr. Singh arrived on a fake Indian document, which he declared to Canadian immigration authorities. This is not illegal, as both international and Canadian refugee law recognize the reality that asylum seekers will be forced to travel on fake documents. An overwhelming majority of refugee claimants arrive with false documentation and Section 178 of the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provides refugee claimants the ability to make a statutory declaration that attests to their identity.

It is unfortunate that some are declaring that he must leave because he does not “belong” any longer, despite the fact that his newly found family and community are here. Certainly his physical state of paralysis and the widespread community support he has received are all crucial factors and realities for Mr. Singh. He, like anyone else, should be entitled to live a healthy and dignified life. Instead of making declarations on what others are entitled to simply by virtue of the fact that we happen to already have immigrated to Canada or have inherited the privilege of Canadian citizenship by birth, let us support one another in being able to live a life of well-being and dignity.

We must challenge the idea that some are more worthy than others to decide their fate and their right to mobility; instead we should accept these as universal values of humanity. The struggle against deportation and to support Laibar is not for him alone nor is it simply one case, rather it symbolizes the struggles for all immigrant and refugees who daily struggle to live with dignity. His situation reveals how hard and long racialized migrants must fight to assert their right to self-determination.

The assumption is that Mr. Singh is being deported because he is an “undesirable” who has “failed” the designated legal processes. However his refusal as a refugee claimant must be understood in a climate where an increasing number of critics are pointing to a failing immigration and refugee system. This includes a growing movement of faith communities who are responding to structural flaws by publicly offering sanctuary, including nine current cases of sanctuary across Canada where churches are defying deportation orders handed down by the government.

For example, Immigration and Refugee Board members are political appointees who are not mandated to have any experience in the law; there is no Refugee Appeal Division despite its guarantee provided in the June 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act; certain avenues such as the Pre Removal Risk Assessment have acceptance rates of 3-5 percent while others such as the Humanitarian and Compassionate claim do not have to be processed prior to deportation. The refugee system has been termed a “lottery system” because acceptance rates can vary from 0-80 percent depending on the judge. Most recently, the Federal Court of Canada struck down the Safe Third Country Agreement between the US and Canada which was creating a “Fortress Canada” by disallowing up to 40 percent of asylum seekers.

In the case of Mr. Singh, his deportation order was handed down despite the fact that he still had a pending legal humanitarian and compassionate claim. It is not far-stretched to suggest that one should not be deported prior to this legal claim being heard. While Mr. Singh received two temporary stays of deportation as a result of immense community pressure, a negative decision on Mr. Singh’s humanitarian and compassionate claim was rendered largely on the basis that he ‘does not have significant ties to Canada’, clearly a false assessment. In addition to 40,000 petition signatures, a variety of organizations have expressed their support, including the Canadian Labour Congress, BC Coalition of People with Disabilities, BC Hospital Employees Union, the Multifaith Action Committee, Association of Chinese Canadians for Equality and Solidarity Society, a long list of South Asian community and faith groups, and politicians from all political parties.

A group of health care professionals issued a letter to Immigration Minster Finley stating, “As health professionals, we are outraged at the fact that the Canadian government would consider deporting a paraplegic man, whose health condition is extremely fragile.âe

It is crucial to highlight that Mr. Laibar Singh’s situation is not unprecedented. In October 2006, a Polish family on tourist visas in Winnipeg suffered a car accident that left the father paralyzed. Initially they were refused on their humanitarian application; however their deportation order was subsequently overturned after pressure by the Polish-Canadian community, residents of Winnipeg, and political intervention by federal politicians. Therefore ministerial discretion in humanitarian and compassionate claims can and has been exercised in the past to stop deportations; in fact it exists for that very purpose.

Many in the South Asian community have been deterred by the negative backlash that has been fostered, specifically the racism in mainstream media outlets and online discussion forums that utilize commentaries and images of angry and frothing brown men to invoke a fear of violence and terror particularly in the post 911 climate. The campaign around Laibar Singh has revealed the ways in which the South Asian community is being constructed as “Outsiders” who do not quite belong to the Canadian nation.

As we know, Canadian history is marked by racism against racialized communities such as the Komagatamaru incident, the Chinese Head tax, the Japanese internment and much more. The very labelling of these communities as “immigrant communities” despite the reality that these communities have resided here for centuries, reveals their second-class nature and their eternal status as hyphenated citizens.

Multiculturalism in Canada celebrates our communities’ culture as long as it does not disrupt too deeply any social or political issues. This internalized model-minority syndrome (the perpetual foreigner syndrome which forces us to constantly prove ourselves as being “worthy” of being in Canada) restrains us from believing that we can âe” indeed we have a responsibility to âe” stand up and exercise our rights and to stand united against systemic injustice without being deemed “unpatriotic” or “ungrateful.”

Finally, we have to vigorously challenge the assertion that the protest on International Human Rights Day was unlawful. Civil disobedience has its roots in human rights struggles including the Indian independence movement, the American Civil Rights movement, and the South African Anti-Apartheid struggle. Those who went to the airport were expressing their commitment to moral values and were acting out of a sense of justice and compassion to protect human life.

In fact, the only thing that has transformed harmful laws and unjust decisions are such courageous movements driven by dedicated and compassionate people.

Harsha Walia

Harsha Walia

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in community-based grassroots migrant justice, feminist, anti-racist, Indigenous...