My wife Martha has been involved for many years in church groups sponsoring refugees and assisting them to settle into new lives in Canada. I have acted as an occasional helper, enough for me to hear some of the heart rending stories about the wars, famines and oppression that have driven people from countries such as Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia or Iran. I have found through personal contact that most of these new Canadians are hard-working, decent and well-meaning. But in 2012, the federal government introduced changes that make it harder for refugees to get here, and more difficult for them once they arrive. Groups of people in Canada remain committed to welcoming the stranger but, ironically, they are finding that in a world with an estimated 15 million refugees and a wait time of years in the camps, they now have no one to welcome.
Canada over the years has granted permanent residency status to about 20,000 refugees annually. That number is comprised of several streams. One consists of those who arrive on their own and claim refugee status. A second group consists of those who are resettled in Canada through in co-operation with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Often, but not always, they are people who have been living in refugee camps. Some are settled in Canada under government sponsorship, and others are sponsored privately through the groups working in cooperation with the government and UNHCR.
The government’s announced resettlement targets for sponsored categories in 2012 was for 13,000 refugees (7,500 government-sponsored and 5,500 privately sponsored) – but ultimately only 9,600 were accepted in that year. The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) points out that this represented the second lowest figure in more than 30 years.
This reduction in numbers occurred while sweeping changes were being made to the refugee and immigration systems. These were driven mainly by the arrival in 2009 and 2010 of two boats off the coast of British Columbia carrying Tamils who claimed refugee status due to persecution in their native Sri Lanka. The government said it was also concerned about people arriving from countries such as Mexico and Hungary and claiming refugee status upon their arrival.
In 2012, Ottawa introduced a bill which it called Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. Speaking in the House of Commons, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said, “We can’t allow the systematic abuse of people who are basically coming to Canada as economic migrants, jumping the queue by going through the back door of the asylum system.” Language of this sort, calculated to target and demean a group of vulnerable people, was used to justify a variety of dramatic changes.
Kenney moved to designate certain refugees as “irregular arrivals” who could be arrested and detained for up to a year. The bill also created a list of 27 “safe countries”, including Hungary, considered capable of providing state protection for their citizens and therefore not refugee producing countries. Refugee claimants from those countries would have their cases fast-tracked and will not be able to appeal the decisions. There have been an increasing number of asylum claims by Roma from Hungary and Kenney has expressed great skepticism about them. On the other hand, The Economist magazine and human rights groups have reported on marauding bands of neo-Nazi thugs harassing and beating Roma in Hungary.
Kenney taken to task
Peter Showler is a former chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, and is a professor of Immigration and Refugee Law at the University of Ottawa Law School. He took Kenney to task for describing anyone seeking refugee asylum as a queue jumper. “There is no refugee queue,” Showler told a House of Commons committee. “Everyone has the right to seek asylum, regardless of how many others are doing so at the same time. . . Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, host countries have the obligation to assess the claim of any asylum seeker who reaches their territory.”
Kenney, in a surprising move, also announced that Ottawa would cut existing health benefits to all but government-sponsored refugee claimants. Kenney, other government ministers and lesser MPs, spoke frequently of refugees having access to better health care than “hard working, taxpaying Canadians.” They were referring to services such as prescription drugs, basic dental and vision care, and psychological counselling services among others.
Refugees are an easy object of demonization. It was left to others to provide a more humane description. Don Smith, writing in the Anglican publication Crosstalk, said: “Refugees are not only the poorest of the poor in Canada; they are also among the neediest in terms of health care . . . they suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, post-traumatic stress disorder, malaria, intestinal parasites, ulcers, eye diseases, rotten teeth . . . and yet the minister expects them to make a choice – food and shelter or medication.”
There has been a backlash against Kenney’s announced health policy, much of it coming from the medical community and private sponsors. The sponsoring groups say that if they have to bear health care costs, it will severely restrict their ability to continue with the work. They have become alarmed both by the government’s policy and its public scapegoating and they are pushing back — in a positive way. A new grassroots movement is stirring in Canada, describing itself as Proud to Protect Refugees (P2P). It is sponsored by the Canadian Council for Refugees and its aim is to change public perceptions.
P2P is beginning to hold information sessions across the country. The first was to occur in Ottawa on May 13. The event’s organizers distributed P2P buttons that can be worn to demonstrate support for refugees, and they took the first steps toward creating a local team in support of a multi-year P2P campaign.