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Human smuggling bill no help to queer refugees

Plan would limit options and raise spectre of detention

Sergio Perez (left) and Tizoc Alatorre fled homophic violence in Mexico and are seeking refugee status in Canada. Credit: Andrea Houston

Bill C-49, the stated aim of which is to crack down on human smuggling, will do anything but, say refugee groups and opposition critics. Some are also calling it “draconian” and “mean-spirited” because it largely goes after refugee claimants themselves.

“We’re opposed to C-49 very simply because it’s a bill that does not respect Canada’s international obligations, doesn’t respect the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it’s not really a bill about anti-smuggling, but it’s a bill about anti-refugees,” says Chris Morrissey of the Rainbow Refugee Committee.

Bill C-49 would give the minister of immigration the power to designate any group of refugee claimants as “irregular,” allowing him or her to put them in detention for up to a year without a proper refugee hearing, deny them the option to sponsor family members to come to Canada for five years, and within that five-year period, deny them the option to seek permanent residence in Canada by any means.

Morrissey says the Rainbow Refugee Commission would prefer the bill be voted down at second reading, as there is nothing worth saving through amendments.

Where this is especially concerning for gay and lesbian refugees is that many are forced to rely on “irregular means” of escaping their countries of origin. Currently, refugee claimants must flee their own country and apply to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in a third country before being able to come to Canada, after spending years in a refugee camp.

Morrissey cites the example of queer Iranians, who must flee to Turkey, whose government then scatters them to smaller towns and villages.

“They’re exposed because they’re seen, and also because they face the same possibility of persecution in Turkey that they would if they had stayed in Iran,” Morrissey says. “Perhaps not with quite the same severe punishment, but certainly severe enough. In Pakistan, the country that people can get into without having a visa is Afghanistan – oh how lovely. And we’ve recently had a couple of gay men who came from Pakistan and who went through the UNHCR process in Afghanistan.

“The use of what’s being termed as ‘irregular means’ is oftentimes the only way someone who is queer can actually get to safety.”

The possibility of detention is also of particular concern for queer refugee claimants, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR).

“Detention for [queer] refugees can be particularly traumatizing,” says CCR executive director Janet Dench. “The experiences of people who have already been persecuted on the basis of their sexual orientation, and then find themselves in jail, their identity may also be questioned and ridiculed.”

Dench points to a recent Xtra story about Mexican refugee claimants being harassed in a Toronto detention facility as proof.

Dench also points to the provisions that allow the government to review a refugee’s file within five years as also being particularly problematic for queer refugee claimants.

“In their presentation of the bill, they have discussed that quite a lot, so it looks like that’s an active part of their plan, to hold people in this kind of limbo situation,” Dench says, citing an example that a queer refugee could be told that a new law or policy in their home country that gives some protection to queers means the government could choose to deport them, as their claim for refugee status would no longer be considered valid.

“That’s a very mean-spirited sort of thing, and it’s short-sighted from the Canadian perspective, too, because people have started to integrate here in Canada; they’re getting involved in Canadian society,” Dench says. “Obviously [queer] groups are always aware that it’s one thing to have slightly better protection for your rights, and another thing to have complete freedom. You might find yourself sent back to a situation where there’s still heavy discrimination, even if the worst parts of the persecution have gone away.”

On Parliament Hill, opposition critics are none too happy with the bill, either.

“It’s basically attacking refugees – it’s not about going after smugglers,” says NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow. “Smugglers already face jail sentence for life if convicted, and/or a million-dollar fine.”

“The way the bill is worded, it says any refugee can be termed ‘irregular’ by the minister,” Chow warns. “So a gay man leaving Iran and going to Turkey and being smuggled into Canada – because that’s almost the only way to leave Iran, is to be smuggled – well that’s irregular. Therefore the minister of the day could declare that person or people that assist that person to be a criminal and charge that person.

“The underground railroad person in Toronto could be charged under the smuggling act and jailed for life. [C-49] gives the minister that kind of power, to designate any refugees or anyone that he claims is arriving in Canada irregularly. And for the smuggling charge to stick, you don’t even have to know that you’re smuggling.”

Liberal immigration critic Justin Trudeau echoes Chow’s sentiments, saying that he is hearing from a number of different experts and groups who are concerned about the unconstitutionality of the bill.

Trudeau says he is also concerned by the perception the government is creating that there are “good” and “bad” refugee claimants or immigrants.

“This government is willfully confusing the issues of immigrants and refugees,” Trudeau says. “Refugees are people who are fleeing persecution, torture, even threats of death in their home countries by the authorities in their home countries, and they’re very different from immigrants. The idea that refugees could be queue-jumpers is absolutely ridiculous, because there is no queue for refugees — there is simply a process.

“The fact that they’ve managed to blend this idea of these people arriving in boats as jumping ahead of the queue for new Canadians who are hoping to bring their grandparents over and it’s taking far longer than it should, shows their willingness to exploit insecurities and fears and misunderstandings of Canadians around immigration to their own political ends, and it’s absolutely irresponsible.”