The True Face of Canadian Immigration

Asylum-seekers can face an indefinite prison sentence upon arrival, despite never having committed a crime.

Border Crossings

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On November 4, 2019, a group of refugee advocates and lawyers took the Canadian government to court to challenge the legal application of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, on the basis that the United States cannot be considered a safe country for refugees. This case arises out of the intense crackdown on illegal immigration endorsed by President Donald Trump during the past two years, but also reflects a larger national issue with Canadian immigration and asylum-seeking procedures. The case ties into Canada’s position when it comes to the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants.

 

In the weeks leading up to the Canadian election, Conservative Party lead Andrew Sheer vowed to put an end to what he viewed as illegal border-crossings from asylum-seekers entering Canada through the United States. His comments reflect more than just a changing tide of public opinion regarding immigration. It also reveals how little the public truly knows about our current immigration procedures and practices in Canada.

 

A pre-election survey conducted by CBC News showed how Canadians are increasingly divided on issues of immigration, with 57 percent of respondents affirming that Canada should not accept more refugees. Indeed, 76 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that Canada should be doing more to favor skilled laborers over other types of immigrants. That said, a poll carried out by the Environics Institute did maintain that the majority of Canadians do maintain an overall positive view of immigration, despite events happening elsewhere.

 

Immigration experts and advocates agree that these results echo a more negative perception of migration worldwide, especially of refugees. The Canadian news cycle has been saturated by media coverage, heightened by online misinformation, of asylum seekers attempting to cross the U.S. border in Quebec. Like the U.S. and several Western countries in Europe, Canada has also been affected by a trend of growing politicizing of immigration.

 

In practice, Canadians know little of how our immigration system operates, particularly in the case of refugees. Common accusations of a lack of integration into the country are an easy cover up for the emotionally tolling and long process of asylum seeking.

 

Beneath Canada’s international image of warm hospitality is a much darker reality. Refugees who find themselves navigating our country’s immigration system often face extensive delays, costly expenses, or interrupted work or studies. There is the added stress of detention, which can extend months and even years, as well as family separation. Indeed, for parents that have been detained, they are often confronted with the difficult decision of either keeping their children with them in detention or having them housed with strangers. Both options can incur traumatic experiences for these already vulnerable children. For all asylum-seekers, the threat of deportation and detention looms constantly and hinges on each visit with border officials, placing a heavy mental strain on refugee claimants.

 

In an August 2019 media statement, the Canadian Council of Refugees deplored the continued presence of children in detention centers in Canada, citing that 118 children had been detained in 2018-2019. In a report titled Invisible Children by the University of Toronto Law Faculty, researchers interviewed mothers from the Middle East, West Africa, and other parts of the world that had experienced detention. Their report revealed stories of children born in captivity, infants surrendered to child protection agencies due to their mothers’ deteriorating mental health, and the persistent anxiety and symptoms of depression suffered by these young children. It also exposed how Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) agents can detain individuals at any time, without prior warning, and with no indication of how long the detention period will last. The comments made by one mother, Marie, echo this sentiment of perpetual fear, "I still get scared every time someone knocks on my door," she said, adding "We did not do any crime, why do they treat us as criminals?"

 

Much of the conversation, even within our own borders, on detention centers and immigrations is concentrated on the United States. Few Canadians are aware of Canada’s own complex legal and physical architecture of jails, immigration holding centers, and police cells. It effectively remains invisible and outside of the public eye. Therefore those who are placed inside of it are too.

 

CBSA has detention centers in Toronto, Vancouver, and Laval. Other parts of the country use provincial correctional facilities for those who have illegally entered the country in areas without an immigration holding center. The majority of individuals detained by CBSA do not have violent criminal backgrounds. Rather, they are being detained for identity risks or flight risks. Flight risk refers to the belief that an individual is unlikely to present themselves for immigration proceedings for fear of deportation.

 

CBSA affirms it puts the physical and mental health of detainees as key considerations, yet many are left to find their way in the system with little support. During the detention period, individuals have no internet access and a restricted use of calls, meaning it is difficult to rely on family and friends for help. These asylum-seekers, who have few resources of their own, can face an indefinite prison sentence upon arrival into the country, despite never having committed a crime. Furthermore, the gendered separation of detention centers leads fathers to be separated from mothers and children.

 

This criminalization of refugees and asylum-seekers is also reflected in changes to the operations of border-security officers. Last year, the CBSA introduced a new requirement for all border-security officers working with detained individuals to wear defensive gear that includes batons, pepper spray, and bulletproof vests. The use of such equipment reinforces the perception that detained migrants in Canada are a threat to public safety and are criminals worthy of punishment. There is increasingly less to separate detention centers from jails.

 

In Canada, there remains a lack of official limitations on the time of detention. There have been cases of individuals being detained for more than four years, despite no crimes committed. In addition, there is no independent monitoring board that can review and offer transparency for detention decisions, which hinders principles of due process and fairness. Detainees therefore have very limited avenues to contest or demand accountability for over-prolonged detention periods. Providing transparency for detention decisions will become even murkier as automated-decision making is integrated into Canadian immigration procedures. According to the researchers at University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab the International Human Rights Program, artificial-intelligence based systems will be responsible for make determinations about people’s refugee applications.

 

As stated by the researchers themselves, “these high-risk experiments are operating within an already highly discretionary system”. Adding that “it will be difficult to trace back if a refugee claim has been rejected as a consequence of an erroneous bias extracted on the basis of an individual’s “race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social group or political group”.

 

Since 2012, when the Conservative-led Stephen Harper government came into power, there has been an increase in the use of detention to address issues of immigration. Statistics from the CBSA show that there were 8,355 individuals placed in detention during the 2017-2018 fiscal year, compared to 6,286 the previous year. There is also a high tax payer cost to keeping individuals in detention. The average cost of keeping someone in detention is $225 per day, more than what is given by the province of Ontario to people on welfare. Most tax payers are not even aware their money is funding such centers.

 

Detention centers are only a part of Canada’s wider immigration policies and our treatment of asylum seekers. They present a moral and ethical debate that Canadians must grapple with, yet they are a part of Canadian border services that operates in secrecy and away from public scrutiny.

 

Global immigration is unlikely to slow down anytime soon. It is essential that against this growing populist tide of anti-immigration, we remember that claiming asylum is a human right enshrined in Canadian and international law. We must prevent border agencies from hardening their treatment of asylum seekers and penalizing border-crossers, for whom migration is often a measure of last resort. Refugee claimants ought to have their right to safe, dignified, and just procedure protected. As global citizens, we also have a moral obligation to uphold the human rights of those fleeing persecution.

 

 

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Immigration, Canada