Image: Morning Brew/Unsplash

The Trudeau government is keeping the border with the U.S. closed to all save essential travel until at least the end of October. With an eye to what’s happening south of the border, few Canadians would disagree.

There are some brave voices in Canada, however, who want the government to make an exception, not only for U.S. oranges and onions (some of which carry the unwanted gift of salmonella), but also for one group of desperate people: refugees from many countries, who, at the moment, happen to find themselves in the hostile and unwelcoming U.S.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers has launched a campaign to convince the Canadian government that refugee travel to Canada from the U.S. is essential. 

COVID-19 rules have all but ended refugee and most other travel to Canada, of course. But even before the pandemic, Canada’s 2002 Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the U.S. made it virtually impossible for asylum seekers to enter this country from the U.S. That agreement deems that the U.S. is as safe a country for refugees as Canada, ergo asylum seekers who land there should stay there and not venue shop.

This past July, Federal Court Justice Ann Marie McDonald ruled that the STCA violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ guarantee of life, liberty and security of the person. In her judgment, Justice MacDonald said that when refugees trying to enter Canada have been forced back to the U.S. they have been routinely subject to arbitrary imprisonment, often under harsh conditions, including solitary confinement.

The court heard the stories of a number of refugee claimants who were sent back to the U.S. and determined that their constitutional rights had been violated in all cases. 

A ‘psychologically traumatic experience’

In her decision, Justice McDonald says one refugee’s account of her ordeal was particularly compelling. 

That was the case of Nedira Jemal Mustefa, a Muslim woman from Ethiopia and a member of the Oromo ethnic group.

Mustefa had lived with relatives in the U.S. for a number of years and finished high school there. But, at the time of her graduation, U.S. officials wanted to deport her. They said she did not qualify to continue her studies in the U.S. The prospect of returning to Ethiopia struck fear in Mustefa’s heart, because the Ethiopian government had launched a campaign of violence against the Oromo. 

In the words of Justice McDonald’s ruling: 

“In 2016 and 2017, the Oromo were subject to mass arrests and held without charges or trials. The government dispatched the military to Oromo regions leading to the death and disappearance of many Oromo youth.”

Instead of returning to her dangerous homeland, Mustefa tried to enter Canada. At the border, Canadian authorities sent her back to the tender mercies of Donald Trump’s U.S. There, she was imprisoned under harsh conditions, without respect for her religion, and, for a time, held in solitary. The Canadian federal court decision cites Mustefa’s account of her ordeal, which the Ethiopian asylum seeker characterized as “terrifying, isolating and a psychologically traumatic experience”:

“Ms. Mustefa believes that she was fed pork, despite telling the guards she could not consume it for religious reasons. Ms. Mustefa describes skipping meals because she was unable to access appropriate food, and losing nearly 15 pounds. Ms. Mustefa also notes that after she was released from solitary confinement, she was detained alongside people who had criminal convictions. She explains the facility as ‘freezing cold’ and states that they were not allowed to use blankets during the day. Ms. Mustefa states that she ‘felt scared, alone, and confused at all times’ and that she ‘did not know when she would be released, if at all.'”

There are other horror stories in Justice McDonald’s account, including that of a Central American family threatened by criminal gangs. The attitude of the current U.S. government toward all such cases is anything but friendly and sympathetic. While Canada almost never incarcerates asylum seekers, the U.S. has created what is, in effect, a massive gulag for the thousands who cross its borders seeking a safe haven.

That is why the Canadian federal court told the Trudeau government it must abrogate the 2002 STCA. Justice McDonald did, however, give the government a bit of time to act on her decision — or to appeal it. She suspended her ruling for six months. 

The government stalled for a while, and did nothing. Then, late on the Friday afternoon before Labour Day, when few would be paying attention, they announced an appeal to the Federal Court of Appeal.

Falsifying medical records and a ‘uterus collector’

Now, two months after the federal court decision, a woman named Dawn Wooten, a nurse in the U.S. state of Georgia, has given the Canadian government yet another good reason to reconsider its appeal.

Wooten is the whistle-blower in a complaint against a private company, LaSalle Corrections, that operates a sort of prison — the Americans use the euphemism “detention centre” — where U.S. officials warehouse people who arrive in their country seeking refuge. The facility is in South Georgia and Wooten works there, although LaSalle recently demoted her from full-time to on-call status.

A group of advocacy organizations filed the complaint together with Wooten. It details a long list of horrors visited upon LaSalle Corrections’ detainees, including the deliberate lack of medical care, unsafe work practices and the absence of adequate protection against COVID-19 for detained asylum seekers and employees alike.

Wooten alleges that when incarcerated refugees who show possible COVID-19 symptoms ask for medical attention it is routine practice for LaSalle’s nurses-on-duty to destroy the detainees’ written requests. Those nurses then fabricate much more benign medical records for the inmates, without even examining them.

The complaint reports that at the LaSalle facility there are units housing as many as a hundred women, many of whom are coughing and have fever and other symptoms of illness. Nonetheless, LaSalle’s employees routinely ignore detainees’ health complaints.

Perhaps most shocking is Wooten’s account of the many women in LaSalle’s detention who have been subject to hysterectomies against their will. The whistle-blowing nurse believes those women were victimized by a doctor — in Wooten’s description, a “uterus collector” — who exploited their inability to understand English.

Spend some political capital …?

We Canadians are now struggling with COVID-19, and what is looking like a possible second wave. Cases of the disease are on the rise, especially in the more populous provinces. It might not be the best time to make an appeal to our collective sense of justice and fairness, especially toward people from far-away places.

All the same, the refugee lawyers’ association believes that even in the midst of a pandemic — and all the fear it engenders in so many of us — Canadians still have the capacity for compassion. 

The Trudeau government could show some leadership here, and, maybe, if necessary, expend a bit of political capital. It could announce that it will drop its appeal of last July’s federal court decision.

The government had the gumption to take on the Trump regime on aluminum tariffs, after all — and it won. Now, it is the turn of asylum seekers trapped in a punitive and dangerous U.S. system.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Morning Brew/Unsplash

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...