By Shayna Plaut
Over 140 people—refugees, lawyers, service providers, day labourers, students and concerned members of the Vancouver community—filed into the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's on May 30: Implications of Bill C-31”. The event was standing-room only and was moderated by the director of the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, Peter W. Klein, the son of refugees who fled Hungary after the revolution.
Lesley Stalker, a respected refugee lawyer, provided definitions of a refugee and outlined Canada's responsibilities to those with a “well-founded fear of persecution” under the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Refugees.
“Of the 43.7 million displaced people in the world, how many does Canada have a responsibility to protect? Only those that reach Canada’s border and meet the definition of a refugee," Stalker said. "In 2011, 25,000 people made refugee claims in Canada. That is a manageable number.”
Stalker helped dispel the myths and rhetoric surrounding refugees and then delved into the meat of proposed Bill C-31, “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act”. Cautioning that the legislation was complicated, she highlighted four main points: the “designated country of origin”—more commonly known as the government-defined “safe country list”; the differential treatment of people arriving through “irregular means” including prolonged detention of women and children; drastically shortened processing times for all claimants; and the absence of a meaningful, merit-based appeal.
Stalker and many of the subsequent panelists are concerned that Bill C-31 concentrates considerable power in the hands of individual ministers. They will have authority to unilaterally detain groups of people who arrive “in an irregular fashion” and to decide which countries are “safe”.
Stalker noted that in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act [“BRRA”], passed unanimously by Parliament in 2010, the minister could only designate a country as safe if certain regulatory criteria were met, and he was required to consult with human rights experts. Under C-31, the minister will set the criteria and does not need to consider a country’s human-rights record.
The concentration of such powers in an individual mark a worrying departure from Canadian traditions of accountability and regulatory supervision.
Stalker said she was concerned by the punitive nature of provisions that permit long-term detention and delay in reunification of families of those who arrive with a smuggler. The UN Anti-Smuggling Protocols and the Refugee Convention prohibit states from punishing asylum seekers who use smugglers, an acknowledgement that those fleeing persecution may have to turn to smugglers to get to safety.
She noted that in British Columbia, the mandatory detention occurs in correctional facilities (prisons). Such detention of refugee claimants in prisons is practised in the United States and other countries, and has been severely criticized by the United Nations as a violation of human rights. And, based on those criticisms, the practice has ceased in the United Kingdom.
Stalker’s overview was followed by a panel discussion highlighting the effects of Bill C-31 on specific communities within Canada, including LGBTQ refugees, Romani refugees, people fleeing domestic violence and other gender-based violence, and lastly on the larger, nonrefugee, Canadian public. About half of the people who presented had also testified before the parliamentary committee in mid-May, based on their extensive work with refugee claimants from these particular communities.
The panelists highlighted particular concerns, often through personal stories of clients as well as families and friends—once again focusing on the “safe country list”, the risk that detention places to vulnerable people who are often torture survivors, and the impact that an overall climate of fear and suspicion will have for people who are fleeing fear and suspicion.
Highlighting the vulnerabilities of each population as well as the targeting of particular communities, the panel also shed light on the common element of a strategic feeling of exclusion, with Harsha Walia, cofounder of No One is Illegal stating: “From now on, I am going to call this the Refugee Exclusion Act because that is what it is.”
Again and again, the concerns centered on the fact that with reduced timelines and an increasingly politicized refugee process, people seeking asylum will be unable to put forth an adequate case and immigration officials will be unable to assess the case. As Sharalyn Jordan of Rainbow Refugee explained: “What people need to make good decisions on refugee cases is the best information and the time to process that information. These timelines make that impossible.”
The panel was followed with questions and testimonials from the audience. Refugees from El Salvador, East Africa, and Mexico shared their own stories of struggling with the immigration system—sometimes describing issues that extended for over a decade.
As one refugee from Mexico commented, “When people ask me what my status is and I say that I am a refugee, they look at me strangely. I feel ashamed. I have never felt ashamed before. I fled my country because of fear but now I wonder, as a refugee am I going to be marked? Is the government going to mark me? Is society going to mark me?"
Given the majority Conservative government, it seems that Bill C 31 will pass. However, there were repeated questions from the audience about what next steps can be taken, with one person specifically asking, “Please tell me something that can be inspiring. What can we do?”
At that point, members of the panel discussed how an outcry from the public has already initiated some changes within Bill C 31, including reduction of the period of mandatory detention of those arriving by “irregular means” and the possible stripping of permanent residency status from some refugees if their country is now deemed “safe”.
Watch the immigration forum at SFU Woodward's in the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre.
Elizabeth Csanyi, speaking about the impact Bill C-31 will have on the Romani communities of Canada, discussed the efforts of everyday Roma demystifying the “Gypsy myth” and literally “coming out” as real people rather than fairytale Gypsies.
In addition, Sharalyn Jordan mentioned protests in Ontario by doctors and nurses and others in the medical profession speaking out against cutting medical care for refugee and refugee claimants, noting that a similar protest is planned here in Vancouver on June 18.
As Jordan explained, “People have different ways that they can make change—some may protest and some may legislate—but it is very important to tell our MPs that we are not happy about what is being done in our name here in Canada. This is unacceptable.”
The government is hoping to pass the Bill before June 29. There are multiple events planned in Vancouver beforehand.
For more information about upcoming events please see:
•National Day of Action regarding Health Cuts to Refugees: The event will take place at the Citizenship and Immigration Canada office (1148 Hornby Street) at noon. Those in the health care profession are requested to wear identifiable clothing (scrubs, lab coats etc.).
For more information on the impact this bill has on particular communities, see the following links:
• MP Don Davies statement on May 17
Shayna Plaut is a PhD candidate and scholar at UBC's Liu Institute for Global Issues. She previously worked for Amnesty International USA.