It was a request that has become almost routine. As passengers from KLM Flight 697 from Amsterdam trooped past Calgary customs agents on Aug.
8, six Iranians calmly claimed refugee status in Canada. The six—a couple with their son and a woman with two teenage children —acknowledged that they had flushed their passports and visas down the aircraft’s toilets.
Then, pleading for anonymity, they argued that Iranian authorities would punish them by harassing—and perhaps executing —their relatives at home. Two days later, at immigration hearings, the Iranians won their privacy and their freedom, while their claims proceed through Canada’s tortuous refugee determination process—a process that can last as long as seven years. Similar scenes are repeated as often as 700 times a week across the country, leading Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to call a special session of Parliament last week to debate the issue. Declared a senior immigration official: “We did not foresee the secondhand refugee movement from Europe. The system has begun to break down.”
Asylum: The daily flood of refugee claimants has ignited a sharp moral and political debate in Canada. The central issue: who is a genuine refugee? For some Canadians, the six Iranians were only secondhand refugees—well-off migrants who abandoned a comfortable life in the Netherlands to seek an even more comfortable life in Canada. For others, the Iranians were frightened transients, living with temporary asylum
but without citizenship in Europe, and fearful of a forced return to war-torn Iran.
Those issues were at the heart of last week’s emergency session of Parliament. Recalled from their summer recess, MPs scrutinized tough immigration legislation that would control the growing number of claims for refugee status. A new bill would deter smugglers, deport claimants who are security risks and detain the approximately 700 migrants who arrive each month without documentation. A second bill, introduced last May, would streamline the refugee determination process from the current seven stages to a more efficient three. It would also screen out half of the claimants at the border, including migrants
who arrive from so-called “safe countries” where they had a chance to request asylum.
Turmoil: For many MPs, the bills represented an uncomfortable compromise. Public opinion is strongly in favor of the measures: an Angus Reid Associates Inc. poll for Southam News, released at week’s end, showed that 79 per cent of respondents supported the government’s detention of 173 East Indian men and one Turkish woman who waded ashore in Nova Scotia on July 12 and its recall of Parliament to pass new immigration laws. But many MPs were also uneasily aware that the bill could breach the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—including such key measures as the right to protection from arbitrary
detention. Opposition MPs argued that the government had gone too far. As Liberal immigration critic Sergio Marchi protested, “The proposals trample violently over the spirit of Canadian justice and civil liberties.”
Indeed, as MPs wrestled with those bills, the United Nations’ Genevabased High Commissioner for Refugees, Jean-Pierre Hocké, expressed his “serious concern” that the measures could expose genuine asylum seekers to “forcible return to territories where
their lives or freedom would be threatened.” But Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard replied that Canada only wants to stop smuggling of illegal immigrants and “will never turn back a legitimate refugee.”
For their part, Canadians from coast to coast were embroiled in a broader debate: how much help—and what kind of helpshould they give to the world’s 12 million political refugees? It is also difficult to determine how to distinguish between political refugees and the millions of other migrants who now wander the globe in search of a better life. Canada subscribes to the United Nations definition of a refugee as a person with “a wellfounded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group
or political opinion.” But because many migrants cannot prove personal persecution, some observers say that Ottawa should broaden that definition—to include anyone from any country torn by war.
Mobile: While Canadians debated those questions, two certainties remained: the global problem is enormous—and Canada’s immigration system cannot handle it. According to the United States Committee for Refugees, a privately funded group, an estimated 12 million refugees are scattered around the world, displaced by civil turmoil or persecution. Almost five million are Afghans, fleeing a bloody civil war: two million have settled in Iran, while another three million dwell in camps and border towns in Pakistan. And about 265,000 Cambodians are crammed into
seedy camps along that country’s border with Thailand (page 15). Three million migrants have found an uneasy home in Africa, including 900,000 people from Ethiopia, Chad and Uganda who have taken refuge in the Sudan. As Raphael Girard, co-ordinator of Ottawa’s Refugee Determination Task Force, told Maclean's:. “The forces that produce refugees are on the increase. There are also a lot more people now—and they are a lot more mobile.”
Stark: Meanwhile, a new kind of refugee has emerged: the so-called economic migrant. Canadian immigration officials point to thousands of immigrants from Brazil, Turkey and even Portugal within the past few years who asked for refugee status even though those countries do not produce refugees. And by law, all their claims must be heard. A senior immigration official painted a stark picture: “The largest migration in the world’s history is taking place and it is largely from the Third World to the developed countries. People move to where things are better—and they are on the move in the millions.”
But the developed world’s tolerance for refugees may have reached its limit. In recent years the United States and most western European nations have enacted restrictive legislation that often bars them from work and their children from school (page 13). As a result, Canada has become an increasingly attractive destination. In 1980 only 1,600 migrants asked for refugee status; this year
the figure will be a staggering 30,000.
The sheer volume has overwhelmed the system. At one point last February more than 1,000 people were claiming refugee status every week. The backlog is astronomical: by year’s end, about 40,000 cases will have accumulated. Immigration officials estimate that they will reject up to 84 per cent of those claims. As Immigration Minister Bouchard has declared: “The existing system was never designed to deal with the growing number of claims or with the large number of false claims to refugee status. It is bogged down and can no longer respond effectively to genuine refugees in need of Canada’s protection.”
Persecution: Bouchard’s legal prescriptions, Bill C-84 and Bill C-55, are designed to discourage abusive claimants. Last spring’s streamlining legislation, Bill C-55, would provide a twomember panel to hear requests for asylum within 72 hours. The panel would reject arrivals who can be safely returned to the countries from which they came—although an immigration department paper stipulates that it would not deport claimants who “simply passed through another country.” The panel would also reject claimants who already have refugee status in another country and those who cannot establish a credible basis for a wellfounded fear of persecution. Claimants who survive that panel’s scrutiny would move on to a hearing before two members of the Refugee Board. Rejected ap-
plicants, in turn, could seek the Federal Court’s permission to appeal.
The emergency bill, C-84, complements those measures. Under its terms, a senior immigration officer could detain a migrant who arrives without papers for seven days. On the request of the immigration minister, detention could be ext,e n,d e d for an additional 21 days—or even longer, if the claimant remains unidentified—as long as there are weekly reviews by a senior immigration officer. If the government believes that a claimant is a security threat, it may detain him and prohibit him from entering or staying in Canada. If a Federal Court judge agrees with the evidence, the claimant
would face immediate deportation.
To deter smugglers, Ottawa wants to increase the penalty from a maximum fine of $2,000 with two years in jail to a $500,000 fine with 10 years in jail. Fines for transportation companies that carry migrants without documents to Canada would increase to $5,000 from $2,000 per person.
Valid: In a highly controversial measure, the bill stipulates that anyone “who knowingly organizes, induces, aids or abets or attempts to Organize, induce, aid or abet the coming into Canada” of a person without valid documents is guilty of an offence. Since church members often assist Central American refugees in the United States in crossing the Canadian border to claim refugee status, opposition MPs voiced fears that they might suddenly face prosecution-even if they led the claimant to a border guard.
Said Sergio Marchi, Liberal immigration critic: “How can the minister justify making the action of a priest, nun or layman who genuinely helps individuals in need an act of civil disobedience?” Added Laurel Whitney, a spokesman for the Toronto-based Coalition for a Just Refugee and Immigration Policy: “The majority of people in our groups on the front lines want to continue. A law like that would not deter them.”
That controversy is a taste of the legal furore that the two bills are likely to engender. Toronto immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman, for one, argues that the Charter applies to everyone, so that even refugee claimants are entitled to guarantees of “life, liberty
and the security of the person” and the right “not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned.” On that basis, Jackman said that she anticipates lengthy Charter challenges of such proposals as the 28-day detentions for security risks and for claimants without documents. Said Jackman: “It has been so hastily drafted that it does not match up with
our Charter obligations. It’s draconian and arbitrary—and it will result in the detention of real refugees.”
The haste is surprising—because Ottawa has anticipated the crisis for several years. In 1985, Toronto Rabbi Gunther Plaut studied the refugee de-
termination system for the federal government (page 12). He recommended a streamlined process with full rights of appeal—but Ottawa failed to act. Instead, one year later it granted what amounted to a general amnesty to 20,000 claimants in the backlog of 23,000 that existed in May, 1986. Then officials put more manpower and more money into the refugee process. It did not work: since May, 1986, a new backlog of 30,000 cases has appeared. When asked about the chances of another general amnesty, immigration officials told Maclean's, “Don’t eliminate the possibility.”
Appeal: To improve the
process and still protect civil rights, many church groups and civil libertarians have proposed an alternative model to replace Bill C-55. They recommend that all claimants receive an oral hearing before the Refugee Board within 40 days of their claim. That board would have to report within 21 days. Rejected claimants could appeal
to another panel of the Review Board which, in turn, would have to decide within 30 days of the original decision. Claimants could ask . for leave to appeal that decision to the Federal Court—although claimants with a “manifestly unfounded claim” would not be allowed to stay in Canada while the appeal was heard.
Desperate: But the gulf between the church groups and the government goes deeper than a simple dispute over process. At issue is who is eligible to live in Canada. Senior immigration officials contend that well-off claimants who arrive at airports and border crossings are undermining a carefully planned system to admit 115,000 to
125.000 immigrants in 1987—including
17.000 refugees huddled in camps or temporary homes around the world. As one senior immigration official said: “We are taking the real refugees—they are desperate, they are in camps, they are often behind barbed wire. They are not the ones who have enough money to check in with their local travel agent and book their passage to Montreal.”
The real refugees are indeed in desperate circumstances—and their Third World host countries are losing patience. In Pakistan, resentment is high because Afghan traders are competing with local merchants and because an
influx of Afghan-linked guns and drugs is straining the social fabric. In the Sudan, local people have burned refugee villages. Flooded with Iranian refugees, Turkey now treats them as “in transit”—and thus not eligible to settle. There are even increasing reports of forced returns to_Iran. Civil war has displaced half the rural population of Angola—and more than 400,000 Angolans are now sheltering in
Zaïre and Zambia. Some officials voice fears that the migrants may soon face severe hunger. Said Thomas Brennan, an official with the U.S. Committee For Refugees: “Food is not a problem yet—it’s the end of the harvest—but it’s going to be.”
In those volatile regions crammed with hundreds of thousands of refugees, Canada uses resettlement as a last resort, when host countries cannot
protect the refugees. That situation last occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Western nations accepted 1.2 million Vietnamese from teeming refugee camps in Southeast Asia. But that massive influx, the largest resettlement program in history, handled less than 10 per cent of the world’s refugees.
Scarce: When host countries are able to protect their refugees, Canada contributes vital aid: $37.6 million to international agencies in 1986. Refugee places in Canada are reserved for migrants with no other recourse. As a result, Canadian immigration officials charge that claimants from Europe are absorbing resources that should go to real refugees in real
trouble. Bogus migrants, declared one senior official, “are using up very scarce places.”
Those same officials also warn that uncontrolled immigration could destroy Canadians’ tolerance. Said one: “We have been careful not to flood smaller communities or larger ones with large, large numbers so that ghettos are created. [But] if your back door is open, that leads to chaos and racial backlash.”
Still, those who can afford airline tickets may also be genuine refugees. And the lineup at the door, however untidy and disruptive, may include thousands of desperate people. Church and refugee aid groups charge that Western nations stuck the label “economic refugee” on thousands of legitimate political refugees when their numbers began to skyrocket. The reason: they simply could not cope with millions of displaced people who are largely illiterate, from alien cultures, or with crippling health problems. Historian Harold Troper, co-author of None Is Too Many, a study of Canadian immigration policy during the Second World War, charges that federal officials have blamed the victim for the crisis. “The government has created a sense that Canada has become a dumping ground,” he says.
Rhetoric: As church and state debate, it has become clear that many refugees live tangled lives that cannot fit into easy legal categories. Toronto agronomist Ahmed Yassin, 30, lost one brother when the army in his native Somalia charged that he was planning a coup—and executed him. A second brother has been imprisoned since 1981. Yassin fled Somalia after a few days in prison in 1976, spent three years in the Middle East and then went to the United States on a student’s visa. He applied for political asylum in 1983—but received no response. He was working on his doctorate in agriculture when friends told him that he was an illegal alien. Yassin fled across the Canadian border at Niagara Falls in March, 1986—and claimed refugee status. If Bill C-55 passes, migrants like Yassin would likely be turned back at the border. “The humanitarian gesture for Canada is over,” Yassin said last week. “The government let it get out of control and now they want to send away tortured refugees.” The rhetoric is strong. But Yassin’s charges indicate that Canadians must decide soon whom they want to help—and how they want to help them—as the queue grows at home and abroad.