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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.