“She couldn’t go back,” says Sharalyn Jordan, her voice softening as she begins the story.
Marta was born in Mexico. When she was 16, she came out as a lesbian. Not long after, in 2008, a gang attacked her because of her sexuality and her mixed-race heritage. She was beaten. Her hands were smashed. She was burned. The gang threatened her life, so Marta went to the police. The police, it seems, had connections to the gang. They told her she would have to begin paying for protection if she wanted to stay alive. Marta and her girlfriend fled, but the threats dogged them from town to town. There was another close call. She finally bought a one-way plane ticket to Vancouver and didn’t look back.
When Marta’s application for refugee status was denied, she was terrified about returning to what could be her death. She appealed the ruling, arguing that her life would be in danger if she returned. It was approved, and Marta has been in Canada since.
Success stories like Marta’s may soon be a thing of the past.
Jordan and other activists are increasingly worried about the impending passage of Bill C-31, or what the federal Conservatives call the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. The act is an omnibus bill that will bring into effect a buffet of immigration and refugee reforms the Harper Conservatives have been trying to get through Parliament for years — most recently as C-11.
And now, as it works its way through committee under a majority government, it seems destined for royal assent.
Jordan, along with her counterpart Chris Morrissey in the Rainbow Refugee Action Network, went to Parliament Hill recently to testify before the standing committee on citizenship and immigration on the effect C-31 could have on queer refugees trying to stay in Canada.
The Conservatives say they want to tackle Canada’s refugee backlog by cutting down on fraudulent claims. Jordan says the backlog began several years ago when the Conservatives halted appointments to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).
She is worried the changes will make the already tight application deadlines even shorter. To gain residence, refugees-to-be must furnish the IRB with evidence that they are facing persecution in their home countries. But with uncooperative foreign bureaucracies and the time-consuming task of translating documents, it’s already “a push” to get the applications done in time, Jordan says.
Many activists say the government’s inconspicuous-sounding rules regarding “designated foreign nationals” spell out real trouble. According to the bill, the minister may deem any “group” of people who made their way into Canada in an “irregular” fashion a national security threat, a human smuggling operation, or both.
“We don’t have any further indication of how it will be applied,” says Colleen French, communications coordinator for the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Any designated foreign nationals will be automatically detained and their cases will be reviewed within 14 days.
While Citizenship and Immigration Canada won’t comment on what number constitutes a group or what method of transportation is irregular, a spokesperson says the clause would be used only if people arrive “in such numbers that identity and admissibility investigations could not be carried out in a timely manner.” In other words, the clause is meant to be used in cases of human smuggling.
The Rainbow Refugee Action Network has worked with refugees who — knowingly or not — were brought to Canada by human smugglers. Jordan has dealt with situations where the smuggled person is unquestionably the victim, in cases of abduction and kidnapping. The new rules mean such people would be locked up.
Jordan points to another part of the bill that concerns her. The government is looking to axe what amounts to double-dipping in the application process. Currently, if refugee status is rejected, people can apply to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds if they will face “undue hardship” in their home countries. Any designated foreign national will have to wait a year to make that claim if refugee status is denied. In the meantime, he or she will be deported. This amounts to hacking away the “safety net,” Jordan says.
This bill also establishes a second set of rules for any refugee claimant coming from a “safe” country — or, in Citizen and Immigration’s lingo, a “designated country of origin,” or DCO. Virtually any country that qualifies as democratic and has rule of law falls within this category.
Another thread in the safety net is the pre-removal risk assessment. If a refugee claim is denied and a deportation order is given, that person can apply for the assessment. Claimants then have 15 days to prove that their human rights would be at risk if they were sent back. Under C-31, anyone coming from a DCO whose application is rejected will not be allowed a risk assessment, which means he or she will be deported immediately and will have to wait three years to do the assessment.
If these changes had been in place just a few years ago, Marta’s case might not have ended so happily.
Under the new bill, Marta’s claim would be seen as false, Jordan says. She was coming from a “safe” country — Mexico — and she had a hard time proving the claims she was making, perhaps because the supposed “rule of law” was the reason she was being persecuted. Marta, under the proposed bill, may well have been deported.Jordan notes with a hint of sadness that this bill “is being forced through,” and there’s little left to be done to stop it. There appear to be no more amendments in the works, and the Conservatives have shot down every change the opposition has proposed. Assuming it does pass, Jordan says, she is going to have “a good scream and shout,” then get back to work.