Forgotten African refugees: Canadian nation-building through exclusion

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Photo: flickr/ darwin Bell

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In recent months, Canada has been inundated with press coverage and debate over the Syrian refugee crisis. The crisis and subsequent arrival of 25,000 refugees to Canada has been meticulously documented, including sentimental photo-ops with politicians, to a horrific pepper-spraying hate crime in Vancouver.

But Daniel Tseghay, an Eritrean writer and organizer in Vancouver, says the crisis has put "a focus on some groups of people at the expense of others." In fact, Tseghay starts his day off with an Internet news search with the key-term "refugee" and every hit is related to Syrian refugees.

This gap between coverage and reality was one of the topics discussed at the panel discussion "African refugees: A panel highlighting excluded and forgotten people" on February 24 in Vancouver. Panelists Juliane Okot Biket, Daniel Tseghay, Josiane Anthony and Samson Nashon addressed why African refugees in particular were forgotten and excluded.

"In Canada, the refugee crisis has become synonymous with the Syrian refugee crisis," said Tseghay.

Tseghay is quick to point out that focusing on Syrians is not a bad thing, and they deserve attention and assistance. However, he hopes that people, and the government of Canada, will acknowledge the many other refugees and their struggles.

For example, Tseghay says his country, Eritrea, has a population of six million, and is a proportionately larger "producer" of refugees than Syria with 5,000 Eritreans fleeing every month. However, he adds, Eritrean refugees do not receive nearly as much media coverage, nor do they have access to any kind of fast-tracked application process.

In addition, refugees from Africa are hampered by excessively slow processing times.

Panelist Juliane Okot Bitek reminded us that immigration is first and foremost the process of nation-building. Immigration law is largely administrative: policies decide who gets to stay, who must leave, and who gets to visit. But these policies are, fundamentally, a question of who is Canadian. These policies are always rooted in the historical context of their time, and our own ideas of belonging.

This process of nation-building always returns to Canadian identity; immigration is always about us. Bitek described this mentality as Canada's desire to fulfill a saviour role to the refugee victim.

And not only is this saviour complex fulfilled when we accept Syrian refugees, Bitek says "[refugees] become and are representations of difference; diversity is a thing that we celebrate. It is a thing that lets us know that we can live with difference."

But accepting refugees is on Canada's terms. It is not, despite the feel-good stories of Syrian refugees being welcomed into the country, a measure of our global goodness, or a charitable endeavor.

We have carefully committed to admitting a certain number -- 25,000 -- because that is what we have calculated works best. We have decided what refugees will integrate and assimilate best, made assumptions about who will provide the greatest economic benefit at the least burden. Naturally, this means that some refugees will be considered more desirable than others.

Powerfully, Bitek contrasted the acceptance of certain types of refugees with Canada's relationship with (and continued exclusion of) its Indigenous people. She came to Canada during the 1990 Oka crisis, and for her, the crisis made it plain that some people didn't belong in Canada, that "Indigenous people were still not welcome" in their own homeland.

The panel asked: what does it mean for a refugee to seek refuge in an occupied land? Does a refugee moving into Canada participate in the very forces of colonial displacement that perhaps led to their own displacement in the first place?

This brings up the issue of complicity. Tseghay, in particular, pointed out the complicity of Canadians in activities that contribute to, or at least benefit from regimes that produce refugees. He described a Vancouver-based mining company in Eritrea that benefits from the conscripted military labour system that many Eritreans are fleeing from.

And this is only one instance.

Canada continues to benefit from an embarrassing laundry list of African riches including coltan mining in the Congo for cellphones, cocoa beans harvested in appalling conditions in Côte d'Ivoire, blood diamonds, oil, and the list continues.

"Nobody wants to leave the place where they were born willfully. It is painful," says Samson Nashon, Refugee Camp educator.

But if we are all complicit in each other's hurts, Nashon reminded us that we are capable of righting those hurts. An educator who has spent time in Dadaab, Kenya-- the largest refugee camp in the world -- Nashon spoke of going beyond just helping refugees, but "addressing the problem before things get out of hand."

Josiane Anthony, a sociology student and aspiring lawyer, brought the issue full circle, grounding the discussion in her own experiences growing up in a refugee camp in a desert in Ghana.

Anthony joked that "being a refugee is not fun," going on to describe a life of strict regulation, horrific violence and a fate largely determined by luck. Refugees from 14 different countries had been forced to make a home in her camp, and while she was lucky to have been able to come here, she spoke of an aunt who still struggled to bring her own husband to Canada after 10 years.

Her call to action was to remember these stories and remain critical of the policies that prevent families from reuniting and finding refuge here in Canada. She also pointedly noted, for those of us who are not Black, to examine our own anti-Blackness and anti-refugee sentiments.

Canada defines itself with every new refugee it accepts; we build our nation through who we allow in. But, as this panel discussed, too often we rely on exclusion to our own detriment. We see now that the historic exclusion of Chinese-Canadians through the exorbitant head-tax, or the ill-fated journey of the Komagatu Maru, are shameful moments of our history.

However, perception is relative. We must consider the blind-spots in our immigration policy, or we will have other Komagatu Marus that future generations will cringe at.


Roshini Nair is a multi-media journalist based in Vancouver. Follow her at @rohsini980.

Photo: flickr/ darwin Bell

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