May 122013
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Volunteer groups organize to surmount new barriers to refugees finding safety in Canada.

by Dennis Gruending

In 2012, the federal government introduced changes that make it harder for refugees to reach Canada, and more difficult for them once they arrive. While church groups and others remain committed to welcoming refugees, they are finding that in a world with an estimated 15 million refugees and an average wait time of 17 years in the camps, they now have no one to welcome.

Over the years, Canada has granted permanent resident status to about 20,000 refugees annually. That number includes those who arrive on their own and claim refugee status and also those who reach Canada through the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) — often, but not always, people who have been living in refugee camps. Of this latter group, some are settled in Canada under government sponsorship, and others are sponsored privately through the groups working in cooperation with the Canadian government and UNHCR.

Notably, Kenney has expressed great skepticism about the increasing number of asylum claims by Roma from Hungary. His position clashes with reports from The Economist magazine and various human rights groups that marauding bands of neo-Nazi thugs have been harassing and beating Roma in Hungary.

The government’s announced resettlement targets for sponsored categories in 2012 was for 13,000 refugees (7,500 government-sponsored and 5,500 privately sponsored) — but ultimately only 9,600 were accepted in that year. The Canadian Council on Refugees (CCR) points out that this represented the second lowest figure in more than 30 years.

These reduced numbers occurred while the government made sweeping changes to the refugee and immigration systems — triggered mainly by the 2009 and 2010 arrival of two boats off the coast of British Columbia carrying Tamils who claimed refugee status due to persecution in their native Sri Lanka. The government was also concerned about people claiming refugee status after arriving from countries such as Mexico and Hungary.

In 2012, Ottawa introduced a bill which it called the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. Speaking in the House of Commons, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said, “We can’t allow the systematic abuse of people who are basically coming to Canada as economic migrants, jumping the queue by going through the back door of the asylum system.”   The Harper government used language of this sort to justify a variety of dramatic changes.

Kenney moved to designate certain refugees as “irregular arrivals” who could be arrested and detained for up to a year. The bill also created a list of 27  “safe countries,” including Hungary, considered capable of providing state protection for their citizens. Refugee claimants from those countries would have their cases fast-tracked and will not be able to appeal the decisions.

Notably, Kenney has expressed great skepticism about the increasing number of asylum claims by Roma from Hungary. His position clashes with reports from The Economist magazine and various human rights groups that marauding bands of neo-Nazi thugs have been harassing and beating Roma in Hungary.

Peter Showler is a former chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, and is a professor of Immigration and Refugee Law at the University of Ottawa Law School. He took Kenney to task for describing anyone seeking refugee asylum as a queue jumper.

“There is no refugee queue,” Showler told a House of Commons committee. “Everyone has the right to seek asylum, regardless of how many others are doing so at the same time. . . Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, host countries have the obligation to assess the claim of any asylum seeker who reaches their territory.”

In a surprise move, Kenney also announced that Ottawa would cut existing health benefits to all but government-sponsored refugee claimants. Kenney, other government ministers and lesser MPs, spoke frequently of refugees having access to better health care than “hard working, taxpaying Canadians.” They were referring mainly to services such as prescription drugs, basic dental and vision care, and psychological counselling services.

Refugees are perhaps easy to demonize. Others rose to provide a more humane description. Don Smith wrote, in the Anglican publication Crosstalk, that: “Refugees are not only the poorest of the poor in Canada; they are also among the neediest in terms of health care . . . they suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, post-traumatic stress disorder, malaria, intestinal parasites, ulcers, eye diseases, rotten teeth . . . and yet the minister expects them to make a choice — food and shelter or medication.”

The medical community has led a very vocal protest against Kenney’s announced refugee health policy. Private sponsors also say that if they have to bear health care costs, it will severely restrict their ability to continue with the work. They have become alarmed both by the government’s policy and its public scapegoating and they are pushing back — in a positive way.

A new grassroots movement is stirring in Canada, sponsored by the Canadian Council for Refugees. Proud to Protect Refugees (P2P) says its aim is to change public perceptions of people who come to Canada fleeing from persecution and oppression. My wife Martha has been involved for many years in church groups sponsoring refugees and helping them to settle into new lives in Canada. In my role as an occasional helper, I've heard some of the heart rending stories about the wars, famines and oppression that have driven people from countries such as the Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia or Iran. Personal contact has persuaded me that most of these new Canadians are decent, hard-working, and well-meaning.

P2P is beginning to hold information sessions across the country, and organizing support groups, city by city. The initial Ottawa meeting was held at Ottawa Mennonite Church on May 13th.  Organizers distributee P2P buttons that can be worn to demonstrate support for refugees, and took the initial steps toward creating a local team in support of a multi-year P2P campaign.

About Dennis Gruending

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and former Member of Parliament. He is also a former director of information for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. His books include the biography, Emmett Hall: Establishment Radical and his latest book is Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life, recently released by Kingsley Publishing Services of Calgary. His blog can be found linked below.


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