On January 25th, Donald Trump issued an Executive Order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq) from entering the US for the next 90 days, as well as suspending the US refugee system for the next 120 days. With its initiation, the ban immediately held up countless travelers on its first weekend, affecting refugees, immigrants, dual citizens and green card holders. Not only were hundreds of people barred from boarding flights into the USA, but hundreds were detained at various American airports for lengthy periods without proper due process.
The ban will effectively leave roughly 2,00 Syrian refugees stranded. The USA had committed to taking in approximately 3,200 Syrian refugees this year, and had only received about one third of them. As it stands, the remaining 2,000 people are now left in a dangerous limbo with nowhere to go.
Aside from the message it sends, the Executive Order will have an devastating impact on the increasingly dire global refugee crisis. The USA has reneged on its obligations with respect to resettlement, leaving countless individuals and families without options and without hope.
But how does the Muslim Ban affect Canada? How is our country involved with this Executive Order? What can we do to respond?
Recently, there have been documented cases of individuals and families risking their lives to cross over the Canada/USA border into Canada. This is not a new phenomenon, but the Executive Order, the ultimate stamp on the spread of xenophobia and islamophobia around the world, will likely lead to an increase.
Canada, the neighbour to the north, is evermore central to the refugee crisis. The weight placed upon our shoulders to properly respond to this phenomena, and to compensate for recent decisions made by the USA, has substantially increased.
If it wasn’t imperative five years ago, or even one year ago, it is imperative now that Canada step up, put its money where its mouth is, and be the immigration leader that it so claims to be.
Here are four ways in which Canada can respond to the Executive Order and contribute to alleviating the refugee crisis.
Suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement
Canada and the US have the Safe Third Country Agreement, which denies people from making refugee claims at our shared borders. That is, if you are fleeing persecution from your home country, but come through the USA, you cannot come into Canada. As a result, countless people are compelled to make the treacherous journey over the border in a precarious manner.
This agreement was put in place based on the assumption that both Canada and the US were havens for refugees. Canada's immigration legislation indicates that, in determining whether a country should be designated as "safe" for refugees, consideration must be given to the country's human rights record and to whether the country complies with the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture. Given the Executive Order, as well as the political and social climate right now, it is clear that the US is not a nation safe for refugees. The Executive Order exposes refugees to more risk and great dangers.
Canada needs to reverse this agreement and allow people to make their refugee claims at our border, safely and without fear. People fleeing persecution and war deserve the opportunity to make a claim for sanctuary in Canada, without risking their lives in doing so.
Abolish Designated Countries of Origin (DCOs)
In 2012, the Harper government put in place 2 pieces of legislation, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, establish the authority to designate countries of origin. DCOs are “countries that do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection.” If a claimant is from a DCO, they have their claims processed in a short time period. While this is a good way to cut down on spending, it severely and adversely impacts claimants from these countries (like Mexico, Estonia, Poland). The shorter the period, the less time someone has to secure legal representation, sort through thousands of pieces of paperwork, and piece together a coherent legal claim.
The Trudeau government, during the election campaign period, promised to abolish DCOs, as they unfairly affect individuals facing persecution (be it for their religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc.) from countries deemed ‘safe.’ We are still waiting…
Take in the 2,000 Syrian Refugees
As a result of the Executive Order, there are over two thousand people literally stranded with no where to go. This should be a no brainer. Canada should offer to take in these individuals who had already been processed for resettlement to compensate for the devastating impact of the ban.
This should be the first action the government takes. Give a home to the thousands of individuals and families who are stuck in limbo. Even before denouncing Trump, before repealing the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada needs to provide a safe haven for those who have been abandoned.
Increase Refugee Resettlement Targets
There has been a debate in Canada these last few years about whether or not to increase the refugee target numbers. Some say we should keep them where they are, so to ensure expeditious and effectively resettlement. Others say we need to resettle a greater number of refugees who are suffering persecution and fearing for their lives.
While I understand that it can be counterproductive to a program if it is underfunded and overburdened, the reality is that Canada can do more. We need to do more. If Germany can take in one million refugees (albeit with some turmoil) Canada can certainly take in more than 38,000 refugees. We ranked 20th, per capita, among industrialized countries and we can be better. If the US is really going to close its doors to Syrians, Canada needs to make up for this giant hole in the international resettlement community.
Bottom line: Canada needs to step up. Trudeau has done a good job of consistently saying that our nation welcomes and respects newcomers; that “diversity is our strength.” These are important sentiments to voice, especially given the current international political climate, but niceties don’t get refugees to safety.
The Canadian government needs to publicly condemn Trump – to say nothing sends the message to Canadians and the world that this is acceptable. The government needs to suspend the Third Safe Country Agreement and abolish DCOs – we cannot make assumptions, that are convenient to us, about the safety of others. Canada also needs to take in the 2,000 Syrian refugees stranded as a result of the Executive Order, and increase its cap on refugees.
As of today, Canada has yet to take any steps towards increasing its refugee resettlement target figures, or ensuring that refugees who are now inadmissible to the USA can safely cross the border into Canada. Though the Trudeau government made lofty promises during the election campaign period to reform the stringent policies put in place by the Harper government, Canada has continued to fall short of a safe haven for refugees.
If “diversity is our strength,” let us welcome refugees with open arms. Prime Minister Trudeau is skilled at whispering sweet nothings into our progressive ears at press conferences and tugging at our heartstrings in 140 characters, but fails to take any meaningful action.
The Canadian citizenry need to demand more from our government. In the last few years we have seen the far-right actively fighting – stoking an anti-immigrant and islamaphobic fire. They have made waves yelling about “anti-Canadian values” and pushing forward legislation on “barbaric cultural practices.” In fact, it was this active fighting that laid the groundwork for a gunman to rampage on a mosque in Montreal this past week.
Airport protests and human-chain demonstrations (any political resistance) are positive and necessary, but the fact is Canada is falling short when it comes to sponsoring and resettling newcomers. Trudeau may be a poster boy for the refugee crisis, but he sure isn’t a leader.