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Opinion

Welcome to Canada, Now You're under Arrest

Bill C-49 would create two classes of refugees, and a lot of hardship.

By Tom Sandborn 5 Jan 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn is a member of the board of the BC Civil Liberties Association and writes this opinion piece in that capacity. He also covers labour and health policy issues for The Tyee.

Imagine you are a refugee, fleeing for your life from a savage dictatorship, civil war or lethal persecution in your home country. Desperate, you have contracted with someone who claims to be able to get you to sanctuary in Canada, a country famous around the world for its support for human rights and its humane treatment of refugees. Once you get to Canada, your troubles are over, right? Well, maybe not, if the government's proposed new legislation, Bill C-49, is enacted. Armed with this new law, Canadian border officials will lock you up without appeal for a year and deny you many of the rights currently enjoyed by refugees who reach Canadian territory.

Thanks to this draconian bill, roundly condemned by many human rights groups including Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees, the refugees that Canada has promised to help under its treaty obligations to the United Nations will be divided into two classes.

If the minister decides your arrival was "irregular," you will be assigned to a class of refugees denied many of the rights Canada has promised to afford to all refugee seekers. You will not only be detained for a year, but your right to appeal a negative ruling to the Refugee Appeal Division will be removed and you will not be able to apply for family reunification for five years, even if your refugee status is finally granted.

Bill C-49's reach even extends to permanent residents, as it broadens the grounds upon which they can be arbitrarily detained by immigration officials.

All these new and harsher conditions can be applied retroactively to anyone who arrives on our shores after March 31, 2009.

'Anti-smuggling' law punishes refugees

The BC Civil Liberties Association is concerned about the apparent decision by the current government to abandon long honored commitments about our treatment of refugee claimants. While Bill C-49 is being styled as a piece of anti-smuggling legislation, in reality, its measures are designed to punish refugees.

A word about people smuggling is in order. People fleeing for their lives cannot be fastidious about getting help. One experienced refugee practitioner told me recently that almost every refugee she worked with had assistance from smugglers. Indeed, as a result of Canada's imposition of restrictive visa requirements on individuals from countries that are more likely to be producing refugees, the only way that some refugees can even reach Canada is through the use of a smuggler.

Canada should not adopt a new law that punishes refugees for trying to save their own and their families' lives. If Canada is serious about combating human smuggling, it could, for example, increase access to the refugee protection system at Canadian consulates abroad: a refugee who obtained protection through a consulate would not need to resort to human smuggling. Canada could take the lead in international efforts to address the human rights conditions that compel refugees to flee their homes and countries.

The real and odious smuggling in this case is the way C-49 tries to smuggle unfair and punitive measures into Canada's treatment of desperate refugees.

We urge all concerned Canadians to communicate their concerns about this politically motivated and ethically bankrupt legislation to their members of Parliament. Bill C-49 is a truly "irregular arrival" in Ottawa. Let's send it back to where it came from and get on with our treaty and moral obligations to refugees and to what is best in Canadian values.  [Tyee]

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