When saving lives does not count and government promises are not fulfilled

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Since claiming a majority victory in 2011, the Harper government, with its Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney, and later Chris Alexander, has succeeded in quickly transforming Canada from a country known for its humanitarian tradition of welcoming outsiders and providing sanctuary to the oppressed into one that fears and distrusts refugees.

In 2012, the government implemented the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act. The Act, according to its architects, mainly aimed to deter 'bogus' refugee claimants who are allegedly wasting Canadian tax money. The government also promised a fairer (and faster) hearing process for refugees. Along with this Act, the Minister of Immigration committed to increasing the number of refugees resettled from overseas, depicted as 'genuine' refugees.

Among other things, the Act granted the Minister of Immigration greater discretionary powers in determining the Designated Countries of Origin (DOC). It effectively created a two-tiered system whereby claimants from countries designated by the Minister as autocratic or undemocratic would have 60 days to prepare for an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) hearing and enjoy guaranteed access to the IRB's Refugee Appeal Division. Claimants from countries deemed safe and democratic would have only 30 to 45 days for a hearing, with no access to the Refugee Appeal Division.

Currently, the DCO list includes Mexico among the 43 countries that the Minister has determined to "respect human rights and offer state protection." Conservative figures tallied by the Mexican government estimates that 26,000 people were reported missing or disappeared between 2006 and early 2013. "The Mexican army and the Federal Police," notes Sergio Rivera Ayala, a Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Waterloo University, "have been involved, directly or indirectly, in these disappearances."

Given Mexico's disappearance record, and the alleged involvement of the local police and army in these disappearances, many analysts concur that the country is not safe and that the government fails to provide protection to its citizens. Designating Mexico as a safe country means that Mexicans, like the Swedes or the Danes, have 30 to 45 days to retain a lawyer and prepare for a hearing. Should the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) decide that the claim is not substantiated, refugee claimants would need to leave voluntarily or be deported back to Mexico.

If success is to be measured by a reduction in the number of refugee claimants from Mexico and elsewhere, the government has undoubtedly achieved it. The number of refugee claims in Canada fell from 20,500 in 2012 to 10,400 in 2013 (though it rose again in 2014 to 13,600 claims). This should not come as a surprise to the government: people fleeing persecution will understandably be reluctant to seek protection in a country that would potentially return them to the place that they are desperate to escape. But to call this measure fair -- as the Harper government often has -- requires a clear stretch of imagination and a lack of ethical integrity.

When introducing the Act, the government committed to increase the number of refugees resettled from overseas by 20 per cent. "Fake applications here," Kenney said in September 2009, "are hurting those waiting abroad." Rhetoric aside, the government's actions toward so-called 'genuine' refugees tell a different story. The average number of refugees resettled during the Harper government's time in office is the lowest of any government since the implementation of the resettlement program in 1978. In 2012, the government resettled the lowest number of refugees since 1979, allowing the resettlement of only 5,412 refugees. Moreover, the government has been vague and dismissive about its plans to deal with the Syrian refugee situation, described by the UN as "the worst humanitarian crisis in decades."

In a news release in January 2014 Citizenship and Immigration Canada boasted that "the overall reduction in asylum claims has already resulted in greater than anticipated savings to Canadian taxpayers of more than $600 million in provincial and federal government welfare, education and health-care costs."

Government statements on tax savings are deceptive, however, since they fail to account for the costs associated with enforcing the new deterrence measures. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) budget alone grew from 0.997 in 2003-2004 to nearly $1.85 billion in 2013-2014. Then there are the millions of dollars spent on the legal fees of lawyers and consultants hired by the government to fight challenges to health-care cuts, the IRB appeal process, and the human smuggling law. Perhaps the Harper government will insist that spending the tax dollars is essential and justifiable when the goal is to secure Canadians, regardless of the consequences for people fleeing persecution and oppression. In actuality, the government record shows that these exclusive and ineffectual measures are an attack on refugee rights that implement a cynical vision of Canada.

Suha Diab holds a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy from Carleton University. Her research interests include Canadian refugee policy, humanitarian and security practices.

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