Undeserving people exploiting the generosity of a benevolent government. Cheating an application process. Taking advantage of welfare. Stealing our jobs. That is the image of “bogus refugees” that Canada’s Conservative government has spent years carefully cultivating. But a single photo of a drowned child has shattered all the stories meant to harden Canadians. Three-year old Aylan Kurdi’s fate off Turkey’s shore has seared the reality of a refugee crisis into our consciousness and left Canadians stunned about our complicity in the death of a child.
Those now putting Canada’s refugee policies under scrutiny will realise that this much else is clear: the Harper government has more than one refugee’s death on its hands. It is not simply that Aylan’s family’s attempt to reach Canada was dismissed by the government. Nor that Canada’s Immigration Minister ignored a hand-delivered plea. Under the Harper government’s overhaul of the immigration and refugee system, those fleeing war, poverty or persecution arrive not to a haven but a hazard. Never has this country been more unkind and unwelcoming.
The government regularly boasts how refugee claimants have dropped in half in the last several years. It’s no surprise, given their tactics. Like border agents installed in airports around the world, preventing refugees from boarding flights. Or billboards in Europe telling the Roma to forget about seeking asylum. Or new laws that arbitrarily label countries as “safe” — even decidedly unsafe ones like Hungary and Mexico — and thus prohibit people there from applying for refugee status. Those lucky enough to try are being rejected by a bureaucratic selection rigged to take less and less people.
Refugees that reach Canada discover it resembles more a fortress than a liberal country. The government throws into detention any “irregular arrivals” — as desperate people are bound to be. A shocking 10,000 people every year — including hundreds of children — wallow in detention facilities that go by disturbing names like Montreal’s “Immigration Prevention Centre,” surrounded by razor-wire fences, on the outskirts of major cities. Others are thrown into provincial prisons, including maximum-security: that makes Canada the only western country that jails refugees and migrants in the same place as convicts.
Those who stick out the process do not comfortably freeload at the state’s expense, as Conservative officials say to stoke fear and resentment. Conservative cuts denied refugees access to temporary basic health care — including pregnant women and cancer patients. This, when migrants use social assistance less than Canadians, and subsidise the economy by working jobs that many Canadians never would. So much for the “social programme buffet” that Canada’s Immigration Minister claims refugees gorge at. A new website by a refugee and migrant justice group documents the range of these hardships that refugees live through in Canada.
Many are never even granted the privilege of suffering through this. A stunning 100,000 people in the last ten years have simply been deported. A number cannot capture the chain of misery it encompasses. Week in and out, migrant advocates hear of deportations back to murder, sexual abuse and religious persecution. Had three-year-old Aylan’s family eventually made it to Canada “irregularly,” that too may have been their fate. Not a safe welcome. Immediate detention. Or a surprise visit by suited border agents, at home or at the children’s school. Then shuffled onto a plane and deported back to the Middle East.
Good enough to work but not stay
But Canadians shouldn’t just be concerned about how mean and harsh their country has become. The Canadian government has a hand in creating the global refugee crisis in the first place. Under the Harper government, Canada has been an enthusiastic participant in US-led wars throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, societies have been torn apart, fuelling extremist movements and spilling hundreds of thousands of people into Europe and beyond. Prime Minister Harper cynically suggested yesterday that more war is a solution; it is in fact a key source of the problem.
Factor in the global trade pacts that Canada supports, as part of a financial architecture that yearly sucks more money out of Africa than it receives. The immiseration of these countries have turned them into barren prisons that every young person seeks to flee. And let’s not forget how climate change — to which Canada has made a brazenly oversized contribution — helped push Syria into civil war. Unless we halt runaway carbon emissions, the escalating and cascading impacts of climate change will make the current flow of refugees look like a dribble.
While the Harper government has shut its doors to refugees, they have opened them wide open to migrant workers — so long as they remain precarious, low-wage, without permanent residency or access to labour protections and social services that Canadians take for granted. The number of migrants to Canada has exploded. Hundreds of thousands are now brought in to work on farms, care for our elderly, and staff fast-food joints — good enough to work, but not good enough to stay. These migrant policies are the flip-side of a system that treats people — especially those of colour from the global south — as disposable.
This is the clue to understanding Canada’s current refugee and immigration system, for it unravels all its myths of benevolence. The incredible fortressing of Canada, much like Europe, has nothing to do with the burden these populations supposedly pose to to the resources of this country. Canada has always needed a larger labour force. But in an age of increasing wealth and inequality, the precarity imposed on refugees and migrants is no accident. It is by design. It is the callous and calculated management of vulnerable populations — exploiting some, excluding others. That is what Canada’s system has become.
For now, a tragic and iconic image has pierced a political discourse that has demeaned and disparaged refugees and their plight for too long. It has thrown Conservatives policies, in the midst of an election, into a new light. Already the government is in damage control, suspending the campaign of its Immigration Minister.
It cancelled an event yesterday where they were meant to announce more immigration security measures. Their fear? That such punitive campaigning will no longer wash.
More security — more detentions and deportations, and fences and walls — is not what is needed. Canadians shocked that our government was complicit in the drowning of child refugees — and those who always knew it went far beyond that — are now raising their voice. Actions calling on the Canadian government to receive more Syrians are being organised over the next week across the country. They can take inspiration from residents in Germany — whose protests have forced their government to allow 800,000 refugees into the country. Or Iceland, where 10,000 people have offered to open their homes.
“Refugees are welcome” should be the first slogan broadcast. Open the door immediately to tens of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. But that will not suffice. Now is the moment to debate an overhaul to the system to reverse the damage the Conservatives have done. And that cannot begin without a reckoning of our own hand in the crisis. Canada’s fortress-style border policies at home and its wars abroad have never been a help, but a lethal contribution.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Martin Lukacs is an independent journalist living in Montréal, Canada.