We Canadians like to think of ourselves as generous and humanitarian, complying with our obligations and commitments under international law to protect refugees. In 1986, the Canadian people were awarded the Nansen medal for our assistance to refugees — the only time the medal has been awarded to an entire people. Yet even as we were opening our hearts and homes to the Vietnamese and Cambodian “boat people” after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, our government was looking for ways to keep refugees from reaching Canada. For example, in 1979 Canada imposed a visa requirement for Chile to ensure that the steady stream of refugees from Pinochet’s dictatorship would be cut off.
Quietly and systematically, in collaboration with European, Australian and U.S. allies, Canada has been closing every possible avenue of access for refugees. By doing so, we drive them into the hands of smugglers who are reaping profits at the expense of the lives of desperate people.
When we learn of the origin of the latest drowning victims, it is clear that they are refugees. They are Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis, Afghans, Eritreans, Libyans — fleeing from the horrific civil strife and brutal repression in their homelands. If they reached our refugee hearing rooms, most would be recognized as refugees and granted protection. And for that very reason, the federal government’s focus has been on keeping people from getting here in the first place.
How is it done?
By enlisting the aid of airlines and shipping lines, training them how to spot false documentation and fining them very heavily for permitting passengers to travel without satisfactory documentation, regardless of whether they are fleeing for their lives.
By “pushing the border out” through the multiple border strategy — ensuring that there are at least seven different border control points before a refugee reaches Canada.
By closing our only land border so that refugees travelling via the United States are ineligible to seek refugee status in Canada.
By changing the laws against smuggling so that they include people who assist refugees to reach Canada for purely humanitarian reasons, so the only option for the refugee is to go with the mercenary smugglers.
By severely penalizing refugees who come by “irregular means” — imprisoning them and denying them the opportunity to bring their family to Canada even if they are granted protection.
In 1951, after the Second World War, the countries of the United Nations adopted the Refugee Convention, recognizing the right of every person to seek refuge from persecution and the obligation of all countries to share in providing protection for refugees. We pledged that “never again” would we be responsible for closing our doors to the desperate and the persecuted, as we had done before and during the Second World War.
But preventing refugees from reaching our border violates the spirit of that convention. We have become a part of “Fortress Europe” and we share Europe’s responsibility for the increasing reliance of refugees on smugglers, and the human tragedies that are happening in the Mediterranean “moat” around Fortress Europe.
To ease the pressure of the current emergency situation, we must respond positively to the urgent call by UN Special Rapporteur François Crépeau to join with the countries of Europe in a comprehensive plan to take 1 million refugees from Syria over the next five years. And we must re-think our refugee-interdiction policies and develop safe, fast, and legal ways for refugees and their families to secure protection in Canada.
Geraldine Sadoway and Andrew Brouwer are refugee lawyers in Toronto.