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Why Bill C-31's 'Safe Countries' Are a Dangerous Idea

Rebuffing refugee groups by saying their fears are unfounded back home is cruel nonsense.

By Shayna Plaut 23 Apr 2012 |

Shayna Plaut is a Vanier Doctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia. She has worked with refugees and torture survivors since 1998 and previously worked for Amnesty International USA.

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Unwanted in Canada? Roma children in Hungary. Photo: Romagazine.

My name means "Beautiful Refugee."

And although I cannot vouch for beautiful, I can say that I have some familiarity with refugees.

For nearly 15 years I have worked in a variety of capacities with people who don't quite "fit" into the traditional understandings of a nation-state: at Amnesty International, at a refugee shelter, and a treatment centre for victims of torture (all in the United States and Canada). I've also worked with Romani refugees in Macedonia and Kosovo. People remark on the meaning of my name and my involvement in human rights -- it's as if I have had little choice in the matter. My family's history chose my work for me.

My grandparents were forced migrants to the United States, and two generations later I am a voluntary migrant to Canada. While my grandparents fled persecution on the basis of their religion, my goal was less urgent: I came to seek out a more just social and economic standard of living here in Canada.

The right for people to seek protection (asylum or refuge) if they "have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group" (which has been interpreted to include gender and sexuality), was enshrined in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), originally a response to the 40 million refugees in Europe at the end of the Second World War.

It has since been consistently upheld in international law and further strengthened by the 1984 UN Convention against Torture. This right is recognized as an inherent right for all people -- it is a "nonderigable" right, a right that cannot be taken away. Canada can be proud to have been one of the strongest proponents for the rights and protection of refugees internationally. It has also ensured the rights domestically with its own Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And right now, because of proposed Bill C-31, the right to seek refuge here in Canada is under threat.

Who is 'bogus'?

The supposed impetus of the law is to "protect" Canada's interests against "bogus" refugee claimants. However, this proposed law runs counter to Canada's historic support for refugees and humanitarian policies because it deems people guilty for seeking protection as a refugee. This presumed guilt is enshrined in many of the policies itself. One example is that of the government-created "safe list," a list of countries that are deemed "safe" -- if a person is seeking protection from a country that is on this list, they will have 15 days to apply for political asylum.

If they are denied and seek appeal they can do so only on technical administrative grounds, not on the merits of their case, and they have no stay of deportation in the process. In other words: asylum applicants, based on their country of origin, will lose the right to habeas corpus -- to be recognized as an individual before the law. Put simply: people seeking asylum because of fear of persecution are now, or will be, presumed to be a threat regardless of their circumstances.

As Vancouver MP Don Davies, official Opposition for Citizenship and Immigration explains: "Bill C-31 threatens to put the lives of tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees at risk by subjecting them to arbitrary targeting, profiling, detentions, and deportations."

But aside from the effect this will have on the refugees themselves, Bill C-31 also threatens to change how Canadians perceive refugees, and in turn, the wide brush of those deemed "foreigners." This is not simply hyperbole; when similar policies of cracking down on refugees were implemented in the U.K., the rise of race and religion hate crimes skyrocketed, at times resulting in their death.

One need only look at the U.S. and Europe, and especially the U.K., to see what happens when countries restrict the right to seek asylum. A wave of popular xenophobia is generated, which in turn results in more "tightening up" of law and procedures: putting refugees in detention; denying them the means of providing for themselves through work; stripping away the basic dignity of health care, family and housing.

Politics and fear

These proposed changes to Canadian law speak more to the internal fears of the Harper administration than supposed threats posed by a Roma person from Hungary, or a woman fleeing drug-trafficking fueled retribution in Mexico, or an out gay man from Morocco.

We can already see how this might occur. In 2010, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney publically characterized Roma as "bogus" refugees. Although his comments did not carry any formal legal weight, the Refugee Determination Board was clearly listening: within one year, acceptance rates of Roma refugees dropped from 95 per cent to seven per cent.

Ironically and tragically, this occurred shortly after 58 Roma were brutally gunned down and killed in Hungary simply because of their ethnicity; their murderers are still at large. Hungary will most likely be one of those countries deemed "safe." But this designation of a "safe country" belies reality -- there is no such thing as a safe country for people who fear for their safety.

People do not flee their home because they find it safe, and refugees are rarely representative of the majority -- that is part of the problem. As with my grandparents, it is precisely because they are not of the majority (in regards to religion or ethnicity or sexuality or political opinion or...) that they are unsafe.

And thus are seeking protection. Here. In Canada.

Which promotes itself as a protector and promoter of human rights and humanitarianism.

Which is why people believe they can create a life of dignity and safety.

Which is their right. Our right. And our responsibility.

Politics is politics but seeking protection, regardless of one's country of origin, being recognized as an individual before the law and living safety while doing so, and having a fair hearing cannot be negotiated or politicized, and that is exactly what is happening.

The second vote on Bill C-31 will be taking place today, Monday, April 23 and it will then go back to committee for changes and revision. Please take this opportunity as constituents -- regardless of your nationality -- to urge your MPs to vote "no" for the current version of Bill C-31.

There have been, and will continue to be public events throughout the Vancouver and New Westminster area regarding the effects of Bill C-31. The Tyee will be co-sponsoring an event on May 30, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the SFU Woodward's building.

[Tags: Rights and Justice.]  [Tyee]

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