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Fleeing the genocidal war in Sri Lanka, 492 Tamils arrived in Canada aboard the MV Sun Sea in August 2010. The response of public safety minister Vic Toews was not to deplore the perpetrators of the massacre against the Tamils, but rather to imprison the traumatized victims to "ensure our refugee system is not hijacked by criminals or terrorists."
Canada's $476.3-million trade relations with Sri Lanka were never questioned, despite an estimated 40,000 dead in 2009. On the contrary, the government declares that "Canada and Sri Lanka have strong bilateral relations based upon shared participation in the Commonwealth, and development assistance through the Colombo Plan."
Borrowing from Australia's refugee system, the Harper government used the Tamil case to shift Canada's refugee policies decidedly to the right. "Four hundred and ninety-two people came aboard the MV Sun Sea, but it was treated as a national crisis," said Vancouver refugee lawyer Douglas Cannon. “In fact, it’s one week’s worth of refugee claimants to this country. One week's worth."
Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of Immigration, in a trip to Australia two years ago, was informed of the "psychological impact, the self-harm, the significant mental health problems of people while they're in detention" by Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia. Furthermore, Australia's $800 million a year mandatory detention policy has failed to deter migrants seeking refuge, nor should it.
Canada's Bill C-31 requires mandatory detention for all "irregular" arrivals over the age of 16. This will include the detention of those desperate enough to resort to human smugglers and those arriving by boat. The bill has mandatory sentencing for smugglers, despite Australia's abandoning such provisions as they found underage Indonesian fishermen being imprisoned simply for steering a boat.
In Canada, a federal judge has overruled a decision made by the Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator earlier this year that had ordered the deportation of a 26-year-old Tamil migrant for being a cook on the MV Sun Sea. The judge ruled that feeding the crew does not make the young man a human smuggler.
Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is a member of a parliamentary committee investigating the Australian detention system. "Mandatory detention has led to significant mental health problems of refugees, people who are already suffering torture, trauma, the post-traumatic stress of the brutality that they fled, war, persecution," said Hanson-Young. "I'd say it's a big failure." In Australian detention centres in 2010 and 2011, six people have committed suicide and over 1,100 incidents of threatened or actual self-harm have been reported.
Bill C-31 will require detentions be reviewed after the first 14 days then every six months. Previously, detention would be reviewed every 30 days. The Council of Refugees has warned that creating a two-tiered system based on a refugee's route of arrival violates the United Nations convention on refugees. The cost of detaining a single refugee is $239 a day and more than $87,000 annually. Prior to the recent changes, asylum seekers were only ever imprisoned during health, security and identity checks.
The new law strips irregular refugees of the right to appeal to the Refugee Board with all appeals now being heard by the Federal Court, which turns down 99 per cent of requests. Those arriving by boat now have a five-year ban on family reunification, permanent resident status and travel. After five years, their status as a refugee can be reviewed and deportation may ensue. In Australia, this policy has resulted in an increase in children arriving by boat as families previously would wait for safer options to send children after one spouse had arrived by boat.
Previously, claimants had 28 days to submit to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Under the new law, only 15 days are given to find a lawyer and prepare a written statement. According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, this will not be enough time for newcomers to prepare their cases properly, given the barriers they face with the legal system, language and cultural practices.
The demand for faster processing time has not been met with an increase in funding for legal aid. Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) is contemplating moving towards web- or phone-based services to meet the pressure. Furthermore, LAO has suggested only fully representing those with a "reasonable likelihood of success." Funding from the federal government has decreased by $2.7 million, despite an increase in immigrant certificates by nine per cent.
Refugees usually lack the financial means to seek legal help independently of government aid. In countries such as Australia, the Netherlands and Sweden, with similar submission rules, all applicants receive state-supported counsel. In Canada, each province deals with counsel for refugees differently, with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick having no formal aid. This year's acceptance rate for refugees was 28 per cent, a substantial drop from 2006 when the rate was 47 per cent.
As of June, considerations such as persecution, risk to life, and cruel and unusual treatment or punishment were no longer considered in applications for Humanitarian and Compassionate Considerations, if applicants had a refugee claim pending or a negative decision by the Refugee Board. Furthermore, refugees denied status by the Board or who have abandoned or withdrawn their asylum claim are prevented for applying for humanitarian and compassionate grounds for at least 12 months. In 2013, it is estimated 1,000 fewer cases will be accepted on such grounds.
In addition, the imposition of visa requirements on certain countries has limited refugees coming to Canada. For example, visas for Roma refugees from Hungary were almost all rejected.
In July, Kenney first cut all but emergency health care for refugees not sponsored by the government. Children needing medicine essential for life such as insulin will no longer be covered; however, if a refugee poses a threat to the local population, through illnesses such as tuberculosis, treatment will be provided. However, refugees with contagious illnesses will not likely seek care as they will not know when their health condition affects public safety.
Despite the Conservative government’s rhetoric about refugees' receiving better health care than average Canadians, the reality is most refugees fall within the same income bracket that allows low-income Canadians access to free health services that higher-income Canadians pay for. No dental, vision or psychological medical care will be provided to any refugees.
"The current reform of the (Interim Federal Health Program) was part of the economic action plan, Budget 2012, and was under budget secrecy; therefore, no consultation took place with provincial and territorial governments or medical and health care associations prior to the policy decision being made," said Rick Dykstra, the parliamentary secretary to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.
A Wellesley Institute Health Equity Impact Assessment conducted on the policy change concludes that women and children will be at elevated risk, in particular if they are victims of physical and emotional abuse. With decreased access to prenatal care and early childhood interventions, developmental problems for children of refugees will increase. Chronic illness will increase due to inadequate primary care and monitoring. Refugees from countries labelled "safe" would not even be treated for heart attacks.
By removing the right of each refugee's case to be heard on its individual merits, Kenney is implementing a system in which refugee applications from a list of safe countries may be dismissed and services denied. This also applies to the way in which the route of immigration creates barriers to inland claimants, such as those working in the highly exploitative Temporary Foreign Workers Program (TFWP) or refugees arriving through the American border. On this basis, some groups of refugees may find even emergency room visits denied.
The government claims the cuts will save taxpayers $20 million a year over five years -- a drop in the bucket compared to the increased cost of incarcerating migrants. As many doctors have pointed out, this number is highly misleading as those deprived of medicine will find themselves increasingly in emergency departments where costs for a single visit can cost thousands.
Dr. Meb Rashid of the Crossroads Clinic said, "I've seen over 2,000 refugee claimants and I can't recall more than a handful who strike me as being wealthy or here for adventure. The government is painting them to be bogus and cheating the system. That really hasn't been my experience."
Numerous studies have demonstrated the cost effectiveness of primary prevention, which many refugees will now be denied.
Canada has accepted one in 10 of the refugees resettled worldwide through the UN High Commissioner. This legacy is currently being threatened. While turning away some of the world's most needy, Canadian companies increasingly exploit the world's poor through the TFWP.
As of late October, 25 Sun Sea passengers had been ordered deported, 28 had been accepted as refugees, and 43 had their claims rejected. In a nation created by immigrants, the role our government plays on the issue today will have dramatic effects on the shape of our society in years to come.
Ian Beeching is a nurse and a social justice activist.
This article was originally published in Socialist Worker and is reprinted here with permission.
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