Canada tends to take pride in its humanitarian tradition of providing protection to thousands of refugees who fear persecution, or who are at risk of torture or cruel and unusual treatment. Despite this popular image, however, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) are both highly flawed institutions, which often fail to protect those seeking asylum.
For example, members of Solidarity Across Borders (SAB), a Montreal-based coalition of self-organized refugees and their allies, recently received a call from Lilia Diaz. Telephoning in tears from Mexico, Diaz told us that she and her family are living clandestinely in the constant fear of being discovered and attacked, since their deportation from Canada this past summer back to the country they had fled.
They came to Canada in 2001 seeking refugee status, but found to their surprise that their refugee status was denied. When the order for their deportation was issued, the family chose to defy it. They opted instead to live underground without rights, without access to health care, services, or decent work, and with the constant anxiety of being discovered by Immigration authorities. Eventually they were discovered and returned to Mexico. Accused of denouncing police officers for rape and murder, Diaz and her family are now being hunted by the Mexican judiciary police. For Lilia Diaz and her family, the Canadian deportation order amounts to a death sentence.
The ordeal of Lilia Diaz and her family is the daily reality for up to 400,000 refugees living without status in Canada. This is because the Refugee Protection Act makes it more difficult to obtain status, while at the same time making detentions and deportations easier. In the political context since 9/11, where immigration policies are being harmonized with so-called “anti-terrorist” policies, the exclusionary, discriminatory and even racist nature of these laws is being exacerbated.
Two aspects of this new situation are worth highlighting. The first is the unprecedented powers that are now being granted to police and immigration authorities, which are leading to a greater tendency to criminalize non-status people and to increase the number of unfair detentions and deportations. The Security Certificate, for instance, allows for the arbitrary and indefinite detention of non-citizens based upon secret evidence. Those detained need not be charged and are without access to a fair trial under threat of deportation. Suspending all civil liberties and due process, the Security Certificate has been used to detain six men, five of whom are of Muslim or Arab origin. In this context, immigrant and refugee communities are the targets of policies that not only fail to protect those seeking asylum, but that offer evidence for the exclusionary criteria and systemic racism of Immigration Canada.
A second aspect is the new, so-called Safe Third Country Agreement. This agreement, which came into effect in December, 2004, prohibits any refugee from making a claim in Canada if they have entered by way of a safe third country, like the United States. This rule is likely to reduce the number of refugee claimants by up to 40 per cent.
Born out of the struggles of refugee communities in Montreal against such anti-immigration policies, the Solidarity Across Borders coalition has been organizing for justice and dignity for immigrants, migrants and refugees for over two years. Most notably, this past summer SAB organized the No One Is Illegal March on Ottawa, which took place from June 18 to 25. The march followed in the footsteps of the historic marches that preceded it, like the 1935 “On to Ottawa” Trek, where unemployed workers won the first unemployment insurance program in Canada; as well as the 1995 Bread and Roses march, where Quebec women marched against poverty. The No One Is Illegal March is part of a growing worldwide movement fighting for status for all.
The march was the inspiration of Shamim Akhtar, a Pakistani refugee who had been living in Canada for three years with her husband and four children. Deported in the summer of 2004, Shamim proposed the march at the first Solidarity Across Borders meeting as a means of challenging the unjust laws and institutions that oppress and victimize immigrants and refugees. The march was developed around the coalition’s four principle demands: 1) the regularization of all non-status persons; 2) an end to deportations; 3) an end to the detention of migrants, immigrants and refugees; and 4) the abolition of Security Certificates.
Regularization is the call for the recognition of the rights of people living without status in Canada. Relegated to the lowest ranks of the labour market as an underclass of exploited clandestine workers, people without status regularly end up cleaning offices and hotels and working in fast-food restaurants, factories, warehouses and sweatshops. While CIC has made statements about the possibility of a partial regularization program favouring immigrants working in particular industries, it continues to operate with a set of exclusionary distinctions that divide people into categories of “good” and “bad,” in which some are deserving of status and some are not. In the meantime, the current regime continues to perpetuate the precariousness of all those living without status here or facing genuine threats to their life following their deportation from Canada.
Solidarity Across Borders is calling for an end to deportations and an end to the detention of migrants, immigrants and refugees. It calls for an end to the double discrimination experienced by those fleeing poverty and persecution. While seeking asylum in a safer country, many people coming to Canadian shores are confronted with the reality that the persecution continues. They discover the unfairness of discretionary powers that allow for detention based not on something that person has done, but rather on what that person is deemed to be: a person without status. These discretionary powers are entrenched in the refugee determination system, where decision-making is often arbitrary.
A good example of this arbitrariness is the case of two Palestinian brothers, both members of SAB. These two brothers, who were born in the same refugee camp in Lebanon and who have identical histories and claims for refugee status, did not receive the same response from the IRB. While the first brother was rightly accepted, the second, who had to plead his case before an official notorious for refusing Arab claimants, was rejected. This unjust situation is aggravated by the fact that the decision supposedly cannot be appealed.
The Canadian government promised to implement a refugee claim appeal process by June, 2003. However, it has not yet done this. For this reason, the unilateral decision of this immigration official supposedly cannot be reviewed. Faced with a deportation order, non-status people are forced to choose between being sent back to the hopeless conditions they had fled and going underground, living without rights with the constant anxiety of being discovered.
It is in response to these realities that hundreds of refugees, immigrants and their allies marched from Montreal to Ottawa this past summer, proclaiming that no one is illegal. While SAB did not win status for all, the march was a visible demonstration of the daily struggle of refugee and immigrant communities’ self-organizing efforts and their fight against repressive anti-immigrant laws. The movement for justice and dignity for migrants, immigrants and refugees continues to grow. The fight for status – for an end to deportations and for the free movement of people – is getting stronger. The struggle in Canada, on behalf of victims of injustice like Lilia Diaz and her family, continues.
For more information: www.solidarityacrossborders.org