No room at Canada's inn

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Usually lost in the bustle of Christmas commercialism is the reminder that when Jesus' parents were looking for a place to stay, there was no room at the inn. For refugees worldwide, that same demeaning sign is hung at the entrance of far too many countries: you are not wanted, you are not admissible, you are undesirable, you are dangerous, you are alien, you are illegal, you are a virus, you are a threat.

Earlier this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the global number of refugees had surpassed 50 million for the first time since the end of the Second World War, with half of them children. Were this group the population of a single country, they would comprise the 24th largest on the globe. To take but one example, over 40 per cent of the population of Syria (9.5 million people) has been displaced by war and repression. That number is equivalent to the total combined population of Manitoba, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Prince Edward Island, the Yukon, and British Columbia. Some 86 per cent of the 3 million Syrian refugees who have left the country are hosted by so-called "developing" countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan, while Canada in 2013 committed to accepting a paltry 200 "resettled" refugees.

The refugee crisis that emerged during and after the Second World War was met with a global response that put into place institutions and conventions dealing with the massive numbers of those displaced and forced to flee. While imperfect, they were a step forward. Today's callous response to a global crisis of similar proportions was captured by a stunning photograph taken earlier this year on the border of Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. It featured a lazy sunny afternoon in which golfers blithely teed off as asylum seekers attempted to access the golf course, and, hence, Europe, by climbing a dangerously high razor-wire fence. Every year, thousands of individuals rush the fence but few make it over. The photo did not capture the severe police beatings of those who did not make it over the fence, but it was symbolic of the desperate measures migrants are forced to take due to a combination of repressive measures and indifference.

Walls and fences

The barbed wire of Melilla is but one of an increasing number of walls and fences going up all over the globe to prevent migrants from finding safety. Like most "solutions" rooted in fear and racism, these barriers only make the world a more dangerous place for the most vulnerable, for whom staying in an abusive environment is impossible. They range from the U.S.-Mexico border, where hundreds die annually trying to make the dangerous desert crossing, to Fortress Europe, where, in the Mediterranean Sea, at least 25,000 migrants have drowned trying to cross since 2000. As columnist Shannon Gormley recently pointed out, "between 2007 and 2013, the [European Union] spent about three times more on keeping migrants out than on helping asylum seekers and refugees who were already in."

A life-saving operation launched by the Italian Navy last year, which reportedly had rescued as many as 150,000 migrants in distress on the Mediterranean Sea, was recently replaced by a joint European Union mission, Triton, with two-thirds less funding than the Italians were putting forward, no search and rescue capacity, and a limited mandate of operation within 30 miles of the Italian coast (anyone further out will drown). Journalist Gwynne Dyer reported a spokesman at the British Foreign office as justifying these changes because "Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue."

In other words, as Dyer concludes:

"So letting lots of them drown will presumably discourage others and save more lives in the end…The EU, of course, is acting with its usual combination of cowardice and confusion… the EU is really talking about killing people here. Or letting them die, if you prefer, but it comes down to much the same thing. How long before they start actively killing refugees fleeing from war, hunger and climate change along Europe's Mediterranean sea frontier (and along Australia's northern sea frontier, and the U.S. border with Mexico, and probably South Africa's northern border too)? Ten to fifteen years, at a guess. We'll all have got used to the principle by then."

In the U.S., Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintains at least 34,000 immigrants in jail simply because of a quota set by Congress. Similarly in Canada, immigration detention remains a national scandal that was criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose director of International Protection denounced "unnecessary suffering, with often serious consequences for health and well-being, in particular when people are held for long periods. It also increases anxiety, fear and frustrations, and can exacerbate past traumatic experiences." Canadian Border Services Agency detained over 10,000 migrants in 2013 (over 200 of them children), many of them in penal institutions, contributing to the myth that refugees are a criminal class of people.

Expendable people

Refugees become an expendable political football that gets kicked around to please various constituencies, and the Canadian government acts no differently. Indeed, Canada's record on refugee acceptance and protection continues to fly in the face of internationally accepted standards, and the government's repeated, vicious attempts to paint refugees in an unflattering light have had an effect on public thinking. Over a third of Canadians polled in August mistakenly believe Canada accepts too many immigrants.

The rate of refugee acceptance hovers around 40 per cent, a number that has more to do with systemic barriers and impossible expectations built into current immigration legislation than the legitimacy of most claims. Lack of access to competent counsel, inability to understand often complex rules and regulations, impossible deadlines, and clear bias on behalf of numerous Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) adjudicators are just some of the reasons why individuals fleeing persecution still find themselves labelled "failed" refugee claimants.

The Harper government, by making it increasingly difficult to gain asylum in Canada, then uses the number of "failures" to bolster its unfounded claims that many refugees coming here are not bona fide. And while Harper continues to tout the line that individuals wanting to access Canada must wait in line and "follow the rules," there are exceptions for those who are rich. Indeed, Canadian permanent residency is open to the highest bidder, and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently announced that Canada will sell 50 spots to millionaires who want to become permanent residents. Additional exceptions will be made for individuals who are not Muslim. Indeed, the Harper government confirmed last week that with the tiny number of Syrian refugees it plans to consider, it will focus on Christians and other religious minorities and not, as the Toronto Star noted, the "Sunni Muslims who have borne the brunt of Syria's civil war and who form the bulk of the millions who have fled."

Meanwhile, Canada maintains a ridiculous registry of so-called "safe" countries that it does not believe are capable of producing refugees. Among those is Mexico, where the record of violence (60,000 murdered in the drug wars), forced disappearances, and torture (up 600 per cent over the past decade) is astounding. When three Mexican nationals were granted asylum in Canada for exposing an alleged plot to launch cyberattacks on U.S. nuclear facilities, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander chose to appeal their acceptance in Federal Court (and in a rare rebuke from that court, Alexander's appeal was thankfully turned down).

Judicial rubber stamp

But such decisions are rare in the Federal Court. By and large, the judiciary plays a rubber-stamp role in the assembly line of human misery produced by Canada's deportation bureaucracy. And what a long line it continues to be. From January, 2004 to June, 2014, Canada deported 148,057 human beings and, as the Toronto Star reported, "more than 500 of these people were sent to countries where Canada has an official moratorium on deportations: Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Afghanistan," while "Canada has deported more than 1,000 people to 16 of the most dangerous countries in the world."

In an effort to get around the difficulty of deportations to countries like Somalia, Canada has engaged in people-smuggling operations, as documented in a chilling story on CBC's The Current.

Meanwhile, in a classic case of double punishment, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a scary Halloween Eve decision upholding the idea that people with criminal records should not be granted asylum, regardless of their personal circumstances. The case involved a Cuban refugee, Luis Febles, who, struggling with a severe alcohol addiction, committed two assaults in the U.S. for which he took immediate responsibility, served prison time, and subsequently went sober.

At issue was whether the humanitarian considerations of the Refugee Convention would apply in cases like his. The Court dealt at length with the interpretation of one section of the Convention that is now being used in Canadian immigration law to prevent people with criminal records from having the context of their post-offence lives considered in asylum claims. Such context includes, as Justices Abella and Cromwell pointed out in a lonely dissent, "the completion of a sentence, along with factors such as the passage of time since the commission of the offence, the age at which the crime was committed, and the individual's rehabilitative conduct."

Indeed, Febles "expressed remorse immediately after the commission of the offence and turned himself in to the police. [Febles also disclosed his criminal record when he tried to enter Canada.] He pleaded guilty and served his sentence for his criminal conduct. He also admitted that he was suffering from problems with alcohol at the time of the offence. While it is clear that the criminal conduct was serious, what has yet to be determined is whether the crime is so serious that the claimant's personal circumstances since serving his sentence in 1984 ought to be disregarded in considering whether he is entitled to refugee status."

Double punishment

This is a case of double punishment because there is an additional punishment -- that of deportation -- facing Febles that would not apply to a Canadian citizen in similar circumstances. As UBC lawyer Catherine Dauvergne noted:

"There are two principal reasons why we forgive criminals: rehabilitation and atonement. That is, our criminal justice system echoes these two ideas at many levels. A commitment to rehabilitation means believing that people can change, and can return to being productive members of society. A commitment to atonement means that we embrace that idea that those who have 'done their time' or 'paid their dues' should be free to resume their place as members of society."

On the day the Febles decision was released, she said:

"[The] Supreme Court ruled that these values ought not be extended to those whose human rights are in such peril that they have sought refugee status. For those without the ability to seek protection at home, both their rehabilitation and their atonement will no longer be relevant to their ability to find a safe haven in Canada. Once a criminal, always a criminal, is the nub of today's decision….When someone is excluded from refugee status, there is literally nowhere in the world that they can go to start their lives afresh -- to live free from danger and plan a future. Excluded individuals are banished, not only from Canada, but from human society generally."

An equally sickening judgment came out of the Federal Court in November, rejecting the idea that a 12-month bar on accessing what is known as a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) was unconstitutional. That case involved an individual who had been tortured in Sri Lanka but whom the IRB declared, without providing any rationale, would not face torture if forcibly returned to Sri Lanka (even though this is often the fate of returned asylum seekers). The Federal Court refused to review the IRB decision, and the refugee sought a deferral of deportation pending the outcome of a humanitarian and compassionate application. Unfortunately, the refugee was unable to file for a pre-removal risk assessment (which would have automatically stayed deportation) because of an arbitrary measure introduced by the Conservatives that prevents anyone turned down as a refugee claimant from accessing the risk assessment for a full year (during which time many are deported). Given the many problems inherent in the system, some outlined above, the PRRA bar effectively removes any opportunity that an individual will have to indicate risk upon deportation. The PRRA is recognized in Canadian immigration policy manuals as a significant tool that, in responding to Supreme Court jurisprudence, "suggests that everyone, including serious criminals and persons who pose a threat to national security, are entitled to a risk assessment."

But in a terrible decision, Federal Court Judge Peter Annis flippantly dismissed the PRRA because so few -- only 1.6 per cent -- have been successful. Again, that is not a reflection of the legitimacy of the claim, but more an illustration of how poorly the system functions for those most in need. He notes that the refugee in question argued that "the PRRA bar is illegal, in that various unsuccessful refugee claimants will be deported before they can seek the protection that the PRRA mechanism was intended to offer, returning them to places where their lives and freedom could be threatened." But he seems unmoved by this, and claims that a risk assessment was already determined by the IRB officer in declining refugee status, even though, as explained above, such decisions are not always fair or balanced. Indeed, as his fellow judge Anne McTavish noted in a decision on refugee health-care cuts earlier this year, the refugee determination process is not as simplistic as is often made out by government claims, noting that being found "unsuccessful" in a refugee claim does not mean one's claim was "bogus."

The challenge ahead, a holiday wish

And so, as followers of Stephen Harper adorn their homes and churches with signs reading "Keep Christ in Christmas," one wonders if this means they will finally open their doors to provide the sanctuary so many "failed" refugee claimants require to prevent further human rights abuses from befalling them.

Writing in December, 1945, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, reminded us "it is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ." She notes that for early generations of Christians, "in every house then a room was kept ready for any stranger who might ask for shelter; it was even called 'the strangers' room.'''

Contemporary churches have more than enough rooms for "strangers" in our midst. They have the capacity and, with a bit of faith, the will to stand with those who are most vulnerable in our country. Perhaps a good holiday wish would be this: that the callous and, indeed, illegal decisions of governments and courts must be disregarded as we uphold the higher law of loving our neighbours and respecting the dignity and humanity of everyone who appears on our doorsteps. May all places of faith in this country live out their creed, open their doors, and fill up with wrongly "failed" refugees to the point where the cruel, heartless business of deportation comes to an end.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: Sara Prestianni/noborder network/flickr

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