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April 21, 2011

Harper scare tactics on refugees

Reuel S. Amdur

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"This government has turned into something nasty and mean," Peter Showler told an attentive audience at Ottawa's First Unitarian Congregation on April 18. Showler, a former chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board and currently a law prof at the University of Ottawa, was wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of Albert Einstein and the inscription "Einstein was a refugee."

Showler took particular issue with the attitude of Immigration minister Jason Kenney, who referred to the Tamil boat people as “queue jumpers.” 

“There is no queue for refugees,” he said.  What Kenney meant, according to Showler, was that they should remain in refugee camps till their number came up, which takes an average of 18 years.

In addressing the matter of these boat people, Showler noted that everything that Kenney said about them could be true.  They might be Tamil Tigers.  On the other hand, they might also be legitimate refugees fleeing a cruel Sri Lankan government. 

The Tigers, he noted, were not the only ones committing atrocities during the civil war. The boat people are entitled to a fair hearing to make their case. 

However, Kenney has poisoned the whole procedure by his inflammatory comments about them.  His remarks put hearing officers in a ticklish position.  He appoints and reappoints them, and if they rule contrary to his views, they could jeopardize their chances for reappointment.  Thus, he infringes on the right to an independent hearing free of prejudice.

One of the conditions imposed on the Tamils was that they had to show that the human smugglers who helped them get to Canada had been paid off.  The fear was that otherwise they would be under the control of the smugglers.  As a result of this, relatives back in Sri Lanka had to scramble to raise the funds to pay them off. Thus, the Canadian government became “a collection agency for the smugglers.”

Showler also noted that the government took every possible step to keep these people in detention.  When the Immigration and Refugee Board ordered people released, the government appealed to the courts.  On one occasion the court severely reprimanded the government for ignoring orders to release one refugee claimant.  Among the detainees are women with children.

In carrying on its effort to stir up hostility to these refugees, “Five phrases were repeated again and again in government messages: human smugglers, human traffickers, Tamil Tigers, terrorist organization, and more boats coming.”  He charged that the government is engaged in promoting prejudice and hysteria against refugees.

Showler also took issue with the Tory government’s desire to limit the appeal rights of claimants from a list of safe countries.  He noted that Mexico is one of the countries on that list, along with the Czech Republic and Hungary.  The Roma might have comments to make about how safe the countries they were fleeing are, and one Mexican woman who was sent back was slain not long after her return.

In reaction to the Tamil boatload, the Harper government introduced Bill C49.  The bill pretends to be about human smugglers, but in fact if enacted it would punish refugees.  There is already a law on the books against human smuggling. 

“Civil rights would be violated,” charged Showler, “not just of Tamil Tigers.”  The proposed law would allow immigration officials to designate a group of claimants as having been smuggled, and members of that group could be jailed for as long as a year without judicial review.  The proposed law violates the principle of habeas corpus. 

The lack of a right to judicial review clearly violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to Showler.  So why would the government want to adopt a bill that would most certainly be tossed out by the courts?  Showler says that the government is not really serious about getting the bill through Parliament.  They presented the bill, he suggested, as a trap for the opposition parties.  The Tories could charge that they were “soft on smugglers.”  “To their credit, the opposition parties all stood against the bill,” he said.

Moving from the refugee issue, Showler observed that in the last three years Canada has tripled the number of temporary workers admitted. 

The policy is that after four years they will be forced to leave.  This hardly makes sense.  If they have worked successfully and if they were filling a need, the employer would be deprived of a useful employee. 

Showler believes that, instead of admitting such numbers as temporary workers, more should be admitted as regular immigrants.

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