Refugee Rights Day – recognized every April 4 – commemorates a historic decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada, a decision that changed the fate of many refugees arriving to seek asylum in this country. On April 4, 1985, the Supreme Court ruled – in what came to be known as the Singh Decision – that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects everyone’s right to justice when life, liberty, and the security of the person are at stake. Since then, April 4 has been commemorated as Refugee Rights Day to raise awareness about the plight of refugees.
Over the past 20 years, due largely to the efforts of community groups, advocacy organizations, and faith communities, we have been able to make inroads toward the protection or refugee rights in Canada. Unfortunately, as with many historically progressive measures, the federal government has moved policy drastically to the right by treating many valid refugees as presumed frauds. In short, we still have a long and winding road ahead. For instance, annual visa restrictions were issued in 2009 against numerous refugee-producing countries such as Mexico and the Czech Republic. More and more avenues have been barricaded to individuals fleeing violence and persecution.
As recently as last week, the federal Conservative government announced a further overhaul to Canada’s refugee system with a special focus on denying asylum-seekers from certain countries a legal process to effectively appeal their rejection if they are from yet-to-be-named “safe countries.” These claimants would not be allowed to appeal their cases to the refugee appeal board, but rather would have to request a leave to appeal to federal court, which historically reviews very few of theses cases. From our perspective, this process does little other than paint all those applying for refugee status from certain countries as invalid. This is not equal treatment before the law – this is outright, mean-spirited discrimination.
This legislation fails to recognize the rule of law that each case be fully assessed on its own merits rather than having all cases from a particular country painted with the same broad brush. For the government to arbitrarily label a country “safe” – simply because it is perceived as “democratic” by the Harper Conservatives’ standards – is reprehensible. For example, the proposed changes do not adequately take into account that some countries generally assumed to be “safe” are actually dangerous for women as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons.
It is no wonder that António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also warns that the type of refugee reforms the Conservative government has in mind need to be handled with an abundance of caution.
It is hard to believe that Canada was once known as a world leader in the area of refugee rights. However, with political vision and a genuine commitment to social justice, it may still be within our grasp to reclaim that global position. Sadly, the Harper government does not have such vision, and is myopic when it comes to those legitimately seeking to escape persecution.
DIRECTIONS • Vol. X No. 13 • April 5, 2010