If your family was in danger, their very lives threatened by the government that was supposed to protect them, what would you do?
And how would you want the world to respond? These are some of the thoughts that arise on World Refugee Day, and as a Canadian, I am deeply concerned about what our government is doing.
Instead of affirming its commitment to protect such individuals, it is demonizing and punishing them, through its treatment of asylum seekers and through proposed legislation.
Take for example, the case of the 492 individuals who came to Canada aboard the ship MV Sun Sea following a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka. A recent program about this war by Britain’s mainstream Channel 4 tells a dark and devastating story. The film, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” depicts executions, sexual violence, and what appears to be the deliberate shelling of civilians, even inside hospitals.
It is available online and is a must-see for anyone with a strong enough stomach who believes that each of us has a responsibility, at the very least, to bear witness to major atrocities. Of course, our responsibilities go further than that, especially when the individuals subjected to these atrocities arrive on our shores.
Our government, apparently, feels otherwise. Upon their arrival in Canada following hardship and trauma, and a desperate, months-long sea voyage, all of the Sun Sea’s passengers were taken into detention. This included children who, though not officially detained, were kept with their mothers in “low-risk facilities.” One of the detainees, a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy, was taken to hospital for the birth, and returned to detention with her new baby. Most of the passengers were held for more than four months. Among them a woman, pregnant with twins and badly injured in her arm, along with her three children.
Such detentions and treatment represented at that time, a significant departure from what had been the normal response to asylum seekers in Canada. Under our current laws, there is ample opportunity to detain an individual if he or she is suspected of being a security threat, to verify his or her identity, and for other reasons.
For example, there has been a small number of well-publicized arrests or deportations of persons connected with the MV Sun Sea, for alleged participation in smuggling or membership in a terrorist organization (although for all the publicity, many of the facts are still unclear).
But while it is of course, important to protect the safety of Canadians, what is the value of locking up every man, woman and child who disembarks, and keeping them detained for so long? More importantly, the government had no difficulty detaining, arresting and deporting individuals as it felt it needed — including the harsh treatment inflicted on the passengers of the MV Sun Sea — using existing legislation.
They had no need for the draconian measures contemplated under bill C-4 which the government introduced just last week.
Bill C-4 is the government’s attempt to re-introduce the controversial bill C-49 that had failed in the last session of Parliament. If bill C-4 passes, things could deteriorate still further. Under the terms of this proposed legislation, many asylum seekers upon arrival, would have to be placed in mandatory detention, and may not be released for months, or longer.
Even after their release and designation as a refugee, they would be denied travel documents for years (in violation of international law), making it impossible for them to see family members.
The purpose of the bill? Its title suggests that it is intended to prevent human smuggling. But it is difficult to understand how punishing refugees in this and other ways will do so.
If it were your family in danger of being shelled, tortured, or murdered, would this kind of detention deter you from seeking safety? Can there be any positive results from detaining children suffering post-traumatic stress?
Those children and their families likely will become part of our Canadian society. It is not surprising that this bill was unsuccessful in the last Parliament, due to resounding and unanimous objection from critics and all the opposition parties, including concerns that its measures are unfair, in violation of international law, and invalid under our own constitution.
What is surprising is that the government has brought it back.
Considering how many of us are the children or descendants of immigrants ourselves; considering the economic, cultural and social benefits Canada has always gained by accepting immigrants and refugees to our country; and considering our long-standing dedication to humanitarian values and human rights, bill C-4 must be defeated.
In honour of World Refugee Day, you might choose to watch “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” read the news, or in other ways inform yourself of the world’s tragedies.
As you bear witness to the horror and helplessness of people’s situations, keep in mind that right now, there is at least one active thing you can choose to do: write your MP, the prime minister and every government office you can think of, and let them know that bill C-4 does not belong in Canada.
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv is the equality program director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association