This op-ed was originally published by PostMedia News on April 3,2012. Click here to view original.
When is it legitimate to target and hurt innocent families?
Unfortunately, this is not a riddle. The government’s new omnibus anti-refugee bill (C-31) would do precisely that — and for no good reason.
Take, for example, the detention of asylum seekers entering Canada. Under bill C-31, the minister could at his or her whim designate certain “groups” (or families) arriving in Canada, even if their reason for coming is that they were escaping torture, sexual violence or other targeted atrocities in their home country.
Note: In current Canadian as well as international human rights law, we recognize that it would be absurd — and inhumane — to punish people for escaping persecution and seeking asylum.
Not so bill C-31.
Being “designated” by the minister under this bill is very bad for one’s family life.
The first harm to befall you is automatic mandatory detention — and in this case, no good or bad reasons are necessary, since under the bill, the government is not obliged to bring you before an independent decision-maker for 12 months, and only then would they consider whether there is any need to jail you.
And while in this 12-month no-reasons-needed detention, what happens to your family? If you and your family were lucky enough to escape together from danger in your country of origin, bill C-31 would see to it that on arrival in Canada, you could no longer stay together.
Men and women would likely be locked up in gender-segregated detention facilities or jails.
As for your children — youth aged 16 years or older would also be placed in automatic mandatory detention, so they might end up with one parent, but not likely both.
Children and youth aged 15 and under do not have to be detained under this bill.
So here is what would happen to them if you were the asylum seeker being detained. According to government spokespeople, you should be reassured that you as the parent would be consulted — the only catch is that there are only two options when the parent is in mandatory detention: having your child with you in the jail or jail-like facility; or having your child separated from you for the duration of the detention, during which time he or she could end up in foster or other state-sponsored care.
This difficult decision would probably be even harder for you if you were aware of the documented mental health impacts of detention on children and youth (such as suicide, self-harm, etc). It may also be harder than usual to separate from your child if he or she has been through traumas in your country of origin, and/or a grueling escape in your search for safety.
Unfortunately, bill C-31 does not stop there.
The refugee claim process under this bill is speeded up to the point of being impractical or even impossible for certain refugees — which could lead to people being unable to prove their identities and stories. In addition, many groups of asylum seekers under this bill would not have the benefit of an appeal to correct any errors that may occur in the process. An inadequate process coupled with no appeal, could result in people who had escaped terrible dangers being unable to prove this, and being sent back to these very dangers. Clearly, this is not good for anyone — families or otherwise.
But even if you are able to prove your refugee claim in a manner acceptable to Canadian authorities, this is still not enough to protect your family. Under Bill C-31, it is enough that you were in one of the minister’s “designated” groups, for another harm to befall you. If when running for your life you had to leave behind a spouse or child, you would be unable to bring them to Canada for at least another five years after your refugee status is accepted.
And here’s another anti-family policy of bill C-31 for those people who came to Canada as refugees, settled down, found work, built a life and community, had their children and raised a family here: if something changes in your country of origin and the danger passes, even if it is decades later — until and unless you have taken out citizenship and passed the test (not easy for everyone) — under bill C-31 the government can start a process that would likely result in your deportation from Canada. You would have no right of appeal. The fact that your spouse is here and your children born in Canada, would not prevent your deportation.
Splitting families, harming children — these are some of the harms that bill C-31 has to offer. As to the reasons for this bill?
The government has put forward a couple of explanations — such as preventing “human smugglers,” and stopping “queue jumpers” — but nothing that makes sense.
The families running for safety are the “smuggled” not the “smugglers.” And people in danger cannot wait around in queues. If an explanation is irrational and disconnected from reality, this does not qualify as a reason — certainly not a good one. And that is even without considering the cruelty of inflicting mental harm on children who have survived trauma, automatic detention and separation of families. In short, the proponents of Bill C-31 offer nothing that would qualify as a good reason, while causing terrible harms.
Human rights groups, faith groups and countless organizations from across Canada are working to raise awareness about and fight this bill. You can, too. Please share this information with your networks and contact your member of Parliament to let them know you strongly object to Bill C-31 and to the infliction of needless suffering on children and families.
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv is director of equality program with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association