What has changed in how refugee claimants are treated at the US-Canada border?
On January 27, 2003, Citizenship and Immigration Canada issued new instructions stating that refugee claimants at the US-Canada border who cannot be immediately processed on arrival in Canada may be given an appointment to return to Canada later and directed back to the US to wait for the appointment. Reversing earlier policy, these new instructions say that direct backs are permitted even if the claimants will be detained by the US and therefore unable to return to Canada for their appointment.
Since the end of January, most refugee claimants coming to the border have been forced back to the US. Canada has international obligations towards anyone who comes to the border and seeks our protection.
What happens to claimants forcibly returned to the US?
On return to the US, most men and boys over 16 years of age are detained by the US immigration authorities if they do not have legal status in the US. This is particularly the case with nationals of Middle Eastern and South Asian countries currently targetted by US policies. Some of those detained have been able to be released by paying bonds, ranging from $1,500 to $20,000. Collectively refugee claimants directed back have paid up over $100,000 in bonds to the US government. Little of this money will be recovered by claimants who come back to pursue their claims in Canada.
Detainees not able to pay the bond or not offered release on bond are sent to jails in the US where they are detained alongside criminals. Conditions are grim, communication with family and friends difficult, and access to legal assistance minimal or non-existent.
What happens to those not detained?
Refugee claimants are having to wait 6-7 weeks for their appointment to enter Canada, even though they may have no means of supporting themselves. There are no established services for claimants sent back from Lacolle (south of Montreal). The Salvation Army and Vermont Refugee Assistance have responded to the crisis by providing emergency shelter, but the scale of the need is byond their means. Centres assisting refugees in Detroit and Buffalo are seriously over-taxed by the long waiting times. Refugee families are in a state of extreme anxiety as they wonder how they will provide for themselves during the long wait.
Why are numbers of claimants at the border up?
Many (but not all) refugee claimants at the border are of nationalities, notably Pakistani, targeted by recent discriminatory registration programs in the US. Male adults from the age of 16 up of countries that are predominantly Muslim are required to register themselves if they do not have permanent status in the US. Those without status may be detained and processing will begin for removal. The registration requirements have added to the climate of fear among affected communities, who remember the thousands arrested in the aftermath of September 11, and held for months, often in disregard of due process rights.
Why don’t people claim refugee status in the US instead of coming to Canada?
Many people come to Canada because they do not believe they will get a fair hearing in the US. The US has a rule that refugee claims must be made within one year of arrival in the US. Many of those fleeing the registration programs have missed that deadline. Many Pakistanis also fear that the close cooperation between the US and Pakistani governments means that refugee claims accusing the government of persecution will not given a fair hearing. Similarly, many Colombians do not wish to claim in the US because of the US government’s involvement in conflict taking place in their country.
Aren’t many of the claimants economic migrants rather than refugees?
A person may be a refugee with a valid fear of persecution even if they have been living in the US without claiming refugee status. People are often unaware of their rights, especially since legal aid is not available in the US. Also, as long as they were safe and there was no threat of deportation, they did not need refugee status. Now that the situation is changing in the US, people who fear persecution in their home country are asking themselves how they can best find protection.
Don’t people without status deserved to be detained?
The US economy has long depended on the contributions of workers without status. There are an estimated 7 million people living in the US without status. For years this has been treated as normal, but now the rules are changing and people are being penalized. While any country has the right to remove people without legal status, it does not follow that they should be jailed, particularly, as happens in the US, alongside criminals and in often appalling conditions, with very limited access to legal counsel.
What should the Canadian government do?
The Canadian government should revert to its earlier policy of not forcing back to the US any claimants who will be detained by the US. In addition, extra resources should be allocated to processing claims at the border. In June 2002 when there was a similar increase in numbers at the border, the Canadian government assigned more officers to process claims. This time, however, there has been no effort to respond to the increase in claims by increasing resources. The result is a denial of the fundamental rights of claimants detained in the US and a humanitarian crisis.