The refugee situation in Canada
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By Suzanne Dansereau
It was 3 degrees Celsius in Toronto that day, a little nippy for the month of May, but there was a lot of excitement in the air.
Abdul Hadi Berro, aged 35, was playing his first soccer game with the Syrian Eagles, a newly-formed team composed entirely of Syrian refugees, who like him, were resettled in Canada in the last year following the new government’s pledge to process 25,000 claims from the war-torn Middle Eastern country, via its sponsorship program.
“This is like a second life for me,” he told a local paper.
In December 2015, Canadian officials visiting a camp in Beirut selected Abdul. He had been jailed and tortured for 38 days by the Assad regime, after the Syrian Army killed his father and brother who were rebels with the Free Syrian Army. After his release, he escaped to Lebanon, and registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which made him eligible for emigration to Canada. Once his application had been evaluated, the International Organization for migrants (IOM) took over the logistics of his trip to Canada.
He arrived in Toronto with a permanent residency status and a living allowance to last for a year. At first, he was stuck in a shabby hotel in the city’s Chinatown, unable to find an apartment he could afford.
High rents in Toronto and other major Canadian cities are a real problem for refugees arriving in Canada. But after Abdul’s story was broadcast on the state radio, a couple of Torontonians offered him a room in their house for the symbolical sum of $1,00 a month. Then, an Egyptian-born real estate agent and her brother launched a soccer league for refugees, and one month later, Abdul was offered free tuition at a well-known private college.
“Canadians are responding in a magnificent way to the influx if Syrian refugees,” said Rivka Augenfeld, a 20-year veteran volunteer with the Canadian councils for Refugees.
Individual Canadians are exceeding expectations in terms of donations and volunteering. This reinforces Canada’s reputation as a “country of immigrants” said François Crépeau, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
Not only does Canada have one the best sponsorship programs for refugees – it spends approximately 27,000$ for a family of four refugees’ first year of stay, or 16,000$ for one adult - it is also the only country in the world with a private sponsorship program that allows organizations, mainly churches, to sponsor refugees over and above those accepted as government-assisted refugees. The program was created in the late 1970’s to help boat people coming from South East Asia. In 1986, Canada won the UNHCR Nansen Medal in recognition of the “sustained contribution of the people of Canada to the cause of refugees.”
The country’s provincial states are also contributing to the federal government’s efforts. They play an active role in integrating the refugees, providing, for example, free language courses. NGOs add their support in numerous ways, raising money, helping with paperwork, legal council, looking for jobs, or pairing with citizens.
- Selection and control
But there is another reality. In the last 15 years, there has been an important decrease in the number of claimants applying for refugee status in Canada: demands went from 44,000 in 2001 to 16,500 in 2015.
According to Richard Goldman, spokesman for the TCRI, a coalition of 139 agencies serving refugees in the province of Quebec, the reason is because Canada has been discouraging refugee status claimants who are not part of the sponsorship program from entering the country. Since 2001, Canada has been sending its agents to airports in an attempt to stop claimants with false passports from boarding planes, closing off the air channel. In 2004, it signed a “safe third country agreement” with the United States, locking down access via the land borders. (Ironically, if a claimant manages to get into Canada illegally, then they can apply and obtain the status if they have a relative in the country). And in 2009, it made it a requirement that Mexicans obtain visas, even though their country is part of a free-trade deal. In 2012, it imposed a major reform of the asylum system, resulting in claimants having too little time to prepare their applications. It also cut health care for claimants (a measure that was later overturned in court).
“Canada is good with the refugees it selects and controls”, summarizes Rivka Augenfeld, “but it is [also] the champion of restrictions.”
Canada has been criticized by the United Nations Committee against Torture and the UN Human Rights Committee for not recognizing its responsibility as a signatory to the Convention against Torture. According to this convention, Canada should not return a person who has been denied refugee status to a country where there is a risk of torture.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has also repeatedly criticized Canada for being slow in reuniting refugee families, a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The new government has pledged a better approach. With the special operation welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees, plus 12,000 or so from other countries, (excluding the 12,000-odd who arrived first and then claimed asylum) Canada, a country of 35 million inhabitants is doing a better job per capita than, for example, the United States.
But organizations say many more improvements are needed. One of the problems is that legal aid for status claimants whose requests have been rejected is proving to be insufficient. Detention of the claimants' families, including children, waiting for an approval is also shameful: in some cities, like the capital city of Ottawa, refugees are detained with criminals.
The major problem, however, has to do with the length of waiting times for sponsored refugee status claimants. Richard Goldman mentions the case of a Montreal-based family from Burundi that has been waiting for four years to get approval to sponsor a family member. His treatment has not been expedited, despite the cycle of violence and repression that started last summer in the country. Paul Clark, head of Refugee Action Montreal (ARM) mentions the case of an Afghan family still waiting after six years that recently gave up hope and canceled its request. Depending on the resources the government invests in different locations overseas to select refugees, waiting times can vary from one to eight years. Organizations fear that with the priority given to 25,000 Syrians, claimants from other countries will suffer from more backlogs, unless resources are increased.
"What we did for the Syrian refugees is wonderful, but we have to improve the processing time for others," said Goldman. Adds Augenfeld: "Is the response for Syrians a one-shot deal, or will the government improve the system for the long term? We have yet to find out."