Last month, the UN adopted the New York Declaration, which aims to guarantee refugees and migrants universal human rights and fundamental freedoms. Considering the Liberal government’s lofty rhetoric on humanitarianism and cultural diversity, one could hardly be blamed for believing that it would easy for Canada to meet the aspirations contained in the Declaration.
And yet, when it comes to one of the New York Declaration’s main tenets, ending the detention of migrant children, we’re lagging far behind. In fact, it remains common practice to hold children, including toddlers, in detention. An average of 242 children were held in immigration detention centers with a parent or their family each year between 2010 and 2014, under conditions that, in some cases, imparted lasting psychological trauma.
This is happening in Canada. In 2016.
Why is it so difficult to reconcile the way we see ourselves — as a nation that defines itself by the fact that it’s a beacon of progressivism, tolerance, diversity and openness — with the reality of a nation that continues to fail to meet its international and domestic humanitarian obligations?
After the tragic case of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee of Kurdish descent who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, it later emerged that, in fact, the family never formally applied for asylum in Canada, because of the serious bureaucratic hurdles and the expense involved. Gaining refugee status remains a daunting process, and one that the current government has not made any easier.
In fact, in a legal decision that left immigration lawyers scratching their heads, federal immigration officials recently overturned a decision to grant refugee status to a Nigerian woman who had been a victim of genital mutilation and domestic abuse, in part due to a misspelling of her name on a government-issued birth document. Rejecting legitimate refugee claimants on such arbitrary minutiae will no doubt send a chill through prospective applicants seeking asylum.
Earlier this year, Trudeau welcomed a planeload of Syrian refugees by saying, “[W]e get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations.” Such self-congratulatory rhetoric rings false, now that the Canadian government appears to be surreptitiously backing away from its obligations under the Refugee Convention. And as laudable as it is for a political figure to champion diversity and openness, comparing Trudeau’s words to the actions of his government makes these values seem more like part of a clever buzz-word-driven branding strategy than real indicators of future policy.
But there’s a lot that the Liberal government can do to show that it is acting in good faith, besides ending the detention of migrant children. First, it can repeal the Designated Countries of Origin (DCO) regime, which designates so-called “safe countries” and penalizes applicants from those countries by stripping them of safeguards that would ensure that their cases are examined fairly and denying them the right to appeal. The government must also revoke the Designated Foreign National (DFN) regime, which gives the Minister for Public Safety discretion to designate groups of individuals based solely on their mode of arrival in Canada. Both policies contravene the UN Refugee Convention, and both risk having brutal, irreparable consequences on the lives of individuals fleeing conflict or persecution.
The problem with “sunny ways” is that, much like someone who has stayed out in the sun for too long, we have gotten groggy and complacent. We need to expect more from our government than elevated rhetoric that pantomimes the values that we hold dear. We have to stop believing that the government will act altruistically on its own, and realize that it’s up to us to force it to.
Laurin Liu was the member of Parliament for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles (2011-2015), and has served as deputy critic in the Official Opposition for the environment, science and technology and international trade. She is currently completing a MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.