Will immigration policies put Canada on the right side of history?

Written by Stacey Gomez on June 22, 2019

No One Is Illegal-Halifax organized the Unite Against Racism contingent that took part in the Walk With Refugees in Halifax on June 16, 2019. Photo submitted.

Thursday’s World Refugee Day (June 20) was a global call to stand up for refugee rights. This month also marks the tragic anniversary of a dark chapter in Canada’s immigration history.

In June 1939, Canada joined other nations in refusing to admit Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis who were fleeing Nazi persecution. Just last year, Trudeau issued an apology for the admittedly anti-Semitic immigration policies which cost hundreds of lives. But have we truly learned from our history?

Today, many Central American refugees and migrants have fled northward from unbearable violence, repression and poverty in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Sadly, the U.S.-Mexico border has become ground zero for Trump’s war against refugees and migrants. Canada has shuttered its doors, too.

Trump’s policies have included en masse blocking of asylum-seekers at ports of entry and implementation of a “Remain in Mexico” policy, forcing Central American refugees to stay in dangerous border cities. Others are held in detention centres under deplorable conditions, for extended periods of time.

Since Trump took office, 24 migrants have died in U.S. detention, while at least four have died shortly after being released.

Johana Medina León, a 25-year-old transgender woman and asylum seeker from El Salvador died on June 1 after her requests for medical care while in U.S. custody were repeatedly denied.

Six Central American migrant children have died in U.S. custody since December. Thousands more remain separated from their parents. At least 4,500 children have reported being sexually abused or harassed in recent years while in U.S. custody, most while Trump’s been in office.

Last month, the United Nations asked Canada to do its part and resettle some of the most vulnerable Central American refugees in Mexico, particularly women, children and LGBTQ people.

While Canada should be welcoming refugees, the UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report which was released this week, shows that Canada resettled a meager two per cent of the refugees in need of resettlement in 2018. At the same time, the Liberal government is pushing forward two anti-refugeemeasures which target asylum-seekers at the Canada-US border.

The Liberal government’s budget implementation bill, C-97, which contains major changes to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, has been called out as an underhanded attack on refugee rights. Bill C-97, currently before the Senate, would bar people who have so much as filed a refugee claim among a list of four countries, including the U.S., from seeking asylum in Canada.

Civil society groups have long called for an end to the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), which prohibits most asylum claims at Canada’s official ports of entry via the U.S. Nevertheless, the Liberals are set on expanding the STCA, to prohibit asylum claims from those crossing irregularly, too.

At the crux of these proposed changes is an argument by Liberals that the U.S. is a safe country for refugees. However, this could not be further from the truth.

What underpins the policies of Trudeau and Trump is a scapegoating of asylum-seekers, particularly those who cross in an irregular manner. This disregards the fact refugees have the lawful right to flee to safety, even if it means crossing borders irregularly.

Their policies are racist and xenophobic, designed to keep out racialized communities they deem undesirable or even dangerous.

The Trump administration recently announced that 1,400 migrant children would be held at Fort Sill, which once served as a Japanese internment camp. This move has been met with public outcry by Japanese-Americans, among others, concerned that history is repeating itself.

This past weekend, it was incredible seeing Canadians across the country stand up for refugee and migrant rights in events linked to the Migrant Rights Network and the Canadian Council for Refugees.

With the global rise in xenophobia and racism, only collective action against anti-refugee measures will ensure that Canada is on the right side of history this time.

Stacey Gomez is a migrant justice organizer with No One Is Illegal – Halifax and is engaged in Latin American solidarity work.

A version of this commentary was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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