New immigration rules are a return to group detentions that marred Canada’s past
Nathalie Des Rosiers
Published: December 7, 2012, 11:45 am
Updated: 1 day ago
The following column was contributed by Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association:
Mass detentions are incompatible with a system of justice based on fairness, as mass arrests are. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has decided to use controversial new provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to recently declare “irregular” the arrival of a group of people from Romania via Mexico and the United States. This designation exposes all members of the group – except the 35 people under age 16 – to mass detention, possibly for a period of six months, unless the minister decides otherwise.
The federal government justifies these measures by suggesting that it is necessary to send a message to asylum seekers that Canada does not want irregular arrivals: Canada wants them to go refugee camps where they will be “classified” and eventually, after several years, invited to different countries. Canada, said the minister, wants to prevent asylum seekers from using the services of unscrupulous smugglers. The minister wants to punish asylum seekers to “curb the demand for smugglers.”
The new punitive regime goes further: Even if asylum seekers prove they have a legitimate fear of persecution, and therefore they are refugees under the International Convention, they will not have the same rights as other refugees. They cannot become permanent residents for five years, and can neither travel nor bring their families to Canada during that period.
This strategy will not work. Asylum seekers are fleeing difficult and dangerous situations, and they will do what they need to do to escape. If asylum seekers are willing to risk being shot at the Mexican-American border, they will not be deterred by a potential six months in jail. The punitive “message,” however, is being heard in Canada and it will be costly. Detention not only is costly in the short term but also in the long term: it prevents integration, and delays access to services, work and education.
This discriminatory treatment of refugees is unacceptable; why punish people because of their mode of arrival when they are legitimate refugee claimants? The strategy has perverse consequences for the Canadian legal system: it forces us to accept group detentions, as we did during the Second World War for Canadians of Japanese and Italian origins. A detention imposed on criteria other than individual dangerousness, criminality or risk of flight, is wrong. We are twisting our sense of justice and our fundamental fairness principles, and we are prepared to do so solely because the people who arrive are non-Canadians.
We are also undermining our general immigration goals, which are to foster rapid integration into Canadian society, by delaying legitimate refugees’ access to permanent resident status, which brings personal security, easier access to work and to family reunification, and possibly the right to citizenship and the right vote. We are creating a second class of people who live in Canada, a class of people who will not vote for at least 10 years and will be on “status probation” during this period. Punishing the victims, rather than the wrongdoer, is costly to us all.
Canada has greatly benefited from the contribution of refugees who have arrived over the years: Jewish refugees from various countries, refugees from Hungary, Chile, Vietnam, Somalia, and many other countries. It is not true that refugees have been a burden to Canada or that their long-term contribution is less valuable economically than that of other immigrants. No matter how they arrived to Canada, they made a significant contribution.
The Canadian humanitarian tradition, respect for the letter and spirit of international commitments and for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are all betrayed by this pernicious decision to send this “punishment message” to people persecuted worldwide. The message will not be heard by the victims, but well understood by Canadians: better to punish than welcome.
Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.