News, Refugees

New Challenges for Welcoming Refugees Well

MH forum photo

Micah House forum on new legislation

On December 15th the “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act” came fully into effect.  Often referred to as Bill C31, the act fundamentally changes Canada’s refugee system.  As critics of the legislation have pointed out,  the name of the new act makes abundantly clear that the emphasis is now more on protecting the system rather than on providing a safe haven for refugees.  At a forum about the new act hosted by Micah House last week, Alison Witt shared some thoughts on the implications this new act has for refugees–

If the only information about these changes that you have received up till now is from articles in the newspapers or ‘sound bites’ on the radio or TV you may have the impression that all these changes are really quite good and positive. From our perspective, as those who interact directly with many refugees in Canada, there are some some major reasons to be concerned.

Three of the major concerns we have with this new system are–

  • the timelines are too fast
  • refugee claimants will have fewer rights
  • the tone of the conversation is criminalizing refugees

First the new timelines are too fast. Instead of 28 days claimants now only have 15 days to submit their basis of claim.  This deadline is unrealistic, and will deny refugees a fair chance to prove their claims. Such a short timeline will particularly disadvantage the most vulnerable refugees.

We had a young woman arrive at Micah House last month from Congo. She was physically and emotionally exhausted, disoriented, confused and in shock. She was 7 months pregnant, and didn’t know a single person in Canada. She wasn’t planning on being a refugee, or on coming to Canada –her family just knew her life was in danger and she had to flee -so they found a way to get her out of her country. Fortunately she arrived at the beginning of December just before the new laws came into effect as it took her about 2 weeks to be even able to talk about her situation. I can’t imagine someone like this woman being able to go through all the necessary steps, complete all the paperwork, and gather all the necessary evidence she would need under the new timelines being given.

Second, many refugee claimants will have fewer rights simply because of the country they come from.  The new system assumes that whole countries are safe by giving the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration extraordinary power to designate countries of origin.   There is less emphasis on a refugee’s individual story and why they might need to seek the protection of another country like Canada.

Refugee claimants from these “designated countries of origin” are subject to a different set or rules and even faster timelines.   They are denied other rights -like the right to appeal -and will face immediate deportation after a negative decision.

All this mean that there is an increased possibility of mistakes being made and people being deported to face persecution.  These claimants are now also deprived of basic and emergency health care.

Underlying all these things our third and biggest concern is the tone of the conversation at the government level and how it is presented to Canadians through the media.  The language being used, and the tone of the conversation going on, tends to characterize refugees as criminals and has the potential to lead to an atmosphere of intolerance.

The ideas being spread through the media are very powerful and are capable of fostering increased fear of refugees amongst Canadians.  That is not the way I want my country to respond to the most vulnerable people in the world.  Making a refugee claim is a legitimate way in both Canadian AND international law for a person fleeing persecution to seek asylum.

We need to keep in mind the big perspective. The number of refugees Canada is dealing with is just a ‘drop in the bucket’ of the over 40 million displaced people in our world today. Some might want us to feel like Canada is doing enough already but perhaps we need to question that.

Refugees all over the world always hear the words “No. You are not welcome”

Being able to hear instead “We will try. We are with you. We are glad you are here” offers hope and sustains their dignity. It is also the message that as Christians we are asked to share. We have a clear mandate as followers of Jesus to “love the aliens living among us the same as we love our native born.”