19 October 2009
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, P.C., M.P.
Prime Minister of Canada
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A2
Dear Prime Minister,
We are writing to express our grave concern that the Canadian government is betraying its fundamental legal and moral obligations towards refugees. We call on you to recommit Canada to the principles of refugee protection and to uphold our country’s best traditions of welcoming those who flee persecution.
In the past few months, your government has dramatically closed the door on people seeking Canada’s protection, by imposing visa requirements on the Czech Republic and Mexico (despite the serious human rights abuses occurring in those countries), and by turning back nationals of moratoria countries, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti and Zimbabwe, who make claims at the US-Canada border. Many of these people would have been recognized as refugees in Canada, but now risk being deported by the US.
Furthermore, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration has announced plans for changes to Canada’s refugee determination system that would make it less fair, including the introduction of a two-tier system with lesser protections for some claimants based on country of origin, and a lower quality first-level decision. These changes increase the risk that Canada will send refugees back to persecution, in violation of our legal obligations.
Refugee protection is first and foremost a human rights issue. We ask you to redirect your government’s refugee policy to give priority to ensuring respect for the human rights of those who claim our protection. Canada has international human rights obligations, notably to uphold the principle of non-refoulement, as required by the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the Convention against Torture. We must not send any refugees back to face persecution or anyone to a risk of torture.
We recognize that it is not always easy or convenient to respond to refugee claimants. It is however essential that the refugee determination system conform to international standards and be designed and operated with the goal of protecting refugees. A central feature of such a system is a first-level decision by an independent tribunal made up of well-qualified members. It took many years for Canada to establish such a system, which is now held up as a model around the world.
Whatever its imperfections, our refugee system has many strengths which should be built upon, notably by implementing the Refugee Appeal Division, as provided in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Instead, proposed changes would discard those strengths, by eliminating the first-level determination by a qualified tribunal.
Refugees have also been hurt by the highly negative language used to discuss them publicly. References by representatives of your government to “bogus” claimants and similar misleading and disparaging terms have been widely repeated in the media and in countless conversations across the country. Government discourse has fostered hostility towards refugees, making them feel less welcome in Canada and undermining public support for refugee protection. The negative rhetoric has also fed into more general xenophobia and racism, affecting not only refugees, but also immigrants and racialized minorities.
We therefore also ask you to ensure that discussion of refugee issues by government representatives is respectful and well-informed. We look forward to the government playing a leadership role in educating Canadians about our legal obligations towards refugees and promoting the positive value of a welcoming refugee policy. We look to you to reject forthrightly xenophobic and racist public comments against refugees, recognizing that refugees are among the most vulnerable people in society and are easy targets for attack, as non-citizens in a foreign country.
As Canadians we are proud of our international reputation as a leader in refugee protection. We urge you to safeguard Canada’s commitment to treating claimants with dignity and to providing a fair process to determine whether they need protection.
Canadian Council for Refugees
Canadian Labour Congress
Amnesty International Canada (English speaking)
Amnistie internationale Canada (francophone)
International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group
Centre justice et foi
Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP)
Ligue des droits et libertés
Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN)
Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council Inc
Centre d’accueil et d’établissement d’Edmonton
Refugee Lawyers’ Association of Ontario
Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes (TCRI)
Acting Executive Director
South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO)
Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic
South Etobicoke Community Legal Services
Rainbow Refugee Committee (Vancouver)
Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support
Jack Costello SJ,
Jesuit Refugee Service-Canada
Chairman of the Board of Directors
D.O.O.R.S. To New Life Refugee Centre
Paul St. Clair
Toronto Refugee Affairs Council (TRAC)
Afghan Women's Organization
National Anti-Racism Council of Canada
Inter Clinic Immigration Working Group (Legal Aid Ontario)
Quaker Committee for Refugees
Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)
Lieutenant Robert J. Jeffery
Salvation Army Spryfield Community Church and Family Resource Centre
Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association
National Executive Director
Canadian Arab Federation
Canadian Friends Service Committee
Fr. Jim Webb, S.J.
Jesuits in English Canada
Intervention Network for Persons Affected by Organized Violence
Action Réfugiés Montréal
Southern Ontario Sanctuary Coalition
La Bonne Auberge Community Services, Hamilton, ON
Louise Murray Gorvett
Church Council, Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, Kitchener, ON
South Ottawa Community Legal Services
Science for Peace
Gordon Rixon, S.J.
Matthew House Refugee Ministry - Fort Erie
Canadian Union of Postal Workers
Montreal City Mission
Ann Broderick CND
Donna Egan CND
Constance MacIsaac CND
Maura McGrath CND
CND Visitation Province Leadership Team
Congrégration de Notre-Dame
Sisters of Service of Canada
Mary Finlayson rscj
Religious of the Sacred Heart (Canada)
Sr. Margo Ritchie
Sisters of St. Joseph
Sister Frances Brady, OLM
Our Lady’s Missionaries
Sister Simone Bastien
Franciscan Missionaries of Mary