Stephen Harper’s abhorrent record on refugees and immigration

In a time when it is clear that the need for asylum is greater than ever, the Canadian government defends its decade long record in making admission to Canada, temporarily or permanently, more difficult.

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.
Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe/Wikimedia Commons.

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006. For some 30 years prior, Canada’s immigration system was consistently viewed as of the most welcoming and generous in the world. Although not without growing pains, Canada once worked to accommodate the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity that travelled with immigrants to Canada. After 10 years of Conservative rule, the immigration climate in Canada is now darker and more exclusive than it has been since the 1970s. 

The changes to the following five areas of immigration policy have broken Canada’s reputation as a welcoming country, undermining its character as a fair, open and compassionate society:

1. Refugee admission

In a time when it is clear that the need for asylum is greater than ever, the Canadian government defends its decade long record in making admission to Canada, temporarily or permanently, more difficult.

Citing the alleged need to reduce fraud among applicants, and stoking fears of criminals and terrorists in the wake of the arrival of unauthorized boat migrants, the Conservative government introduced pre-admission mandatory detention of so-called irregular arrivals. These persons are no longer permitted access to Canadian health care services while awaiting their immigration status, which had previously been customary. 

The Government hints that such a policy could deter future fraudulent claims, when in fact the denial of health care to refugee claimants is being widely decried by health care providers as “cruel and unusual.”

The government adopted a “safe country” list, essentially pre-judging that refugee claims from countries such as Hungary and Mexico are baseless. Giving expansive new discretion to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, such refugee claimants are hurried through the system and denied the right to an in-country appeal in the case of a negative decision on their refugee status. These applicants are also denied health care access. For now at least, a federal court has ruled that the safe country designation is unconstitutional, for creating a two-tiered refugee admission system that places the burden of proof too strongly on some refugee claimants.

Thousands of refugees are detained yearly, at significant cost, and for indefinite periods of time; the government claims this is essential to prevent them from absconding. Yet, our best evidence suggests that refugee claimants whose applications are processed rapidly and fairly do not abandon their applications in favour of entering the illegal economy as the government claims.  Instead, according to the most recent study, many facilities force migrants to live in conditions in which their human rights are violated on a daily basis.  Minors continued to be detained, often separated from their parents.  Many have died.

The net result of these changes is a significant decline in the number of refugees admitted to safety in Canada. With the election upon us, the Conservatives are campaigning on a promise to admit 10 000 refugees from Syria and Iraq: a promise that rings hollow after the government took years to fulfill its initial promise to admit a mere 1300 refugees. Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander has been forced to suspend his re-election campaign, for publicly suggesting that the government’s failure to respond the refugee crisis can be blamed on the media’s inadequate coverage of the issue. 

2. Low- and semi-skilled workers

Under Conservative rule, low-skilled guest workers have become the victims of “legislated inequality.”

The Conservative government has made the requirements for hiring guest workers more stringent, ostensibly to protect Canadian jobs; yet labour shortages remain acute in many jurisdictions. Rather than learning from the European experience, which has consistently demonstrated that admitting guest workers over the long term creates an underclass of segregated, isolated, partial members of society, the Conservatives have refused to create clear and consistent guidelines by which guest workers can attain citizenship. Although these migrant workers contribute to Canada’s economy in essential ways, their status as “low-skilled” makes them legally ineligible to be Canadian, in spite of evidence that this refusal is harmful to the Canadian economy

Instead, the government implemented the “4 and 4” rule whereby guest workers can now access temporary work visas that extend for four years. At the conclusion of the visa, they are required to leave and are not permitted to return for another four years. The first “expiry” date of migrants admitted under this new rule came and went on April 1, 2015

The government appears to have ignored requests for visa extensions long enough to render an estimated 70 000 workers, all of whom were working to fill acute labour shortages, illegally present in Canada and thus immediately eligible for deportation.  Indeed, the Conservative government’s repugnant enthusiasm for deporting individuals who have made their lives in Canada was in evidence in their willingness to participate in the filming of the rounding up and deportation of putatively unlawfully present migrants.  Moreover, many speculate instead these migrants have simply entered the illegal economy, with the implicit support of employers who rely on them to remain solvent. The government’s inability or unwillingness to process applications in a timely fashion may thus be contributing to the underground economy that it claims to want to abolish.  

In the meantime, no extra effort has gone into monitoring the environments in which these highly vulnerable individuals work. They continue to be subject to well-documented exploitation and abuse.

3. High-skilled guest workers

Under Conservative rule, high-skilled migrants – the linchpin of Canadian immigration success in the past – are increasingly treated as mere pawns to be manipulated to maximum economic advance. 

The Federal Skilled Workers Program had, until the Conservatives took power, selected immigrants with a wide set of skills – linguistic, educational – that predicted the ability to integrate rapidly, and to interact with a changing economy over time. These workers were proto-Canadians, valued for their contribution to Canada as a whole.  

The Conservative government has disrupted this long-term national success story to put in place a program focused narrowly on short-term economic impacts without consideration of the long-term integration of migrants into Canada.  Denying the well-researched evidence that the point system has been highly effective at selecting migrants who will succeed in Canada, the government has implemented a rigorous “occupations” list, so that skilled migrants’ admission is increasingly contingent on meeting a labour need in the Canadian economy.  The government then imposed caps on the number of applications it would consider in the first place. Further, citing the need to reduce waiting lists, it simply returned applications from workers, unread, many of whom had been waiting for a reply for years.  High-skilled immigrants are now evaluated simply in terms of the benefits they bring to Canada in the short-term, and not their ability to integrate more broadly into the Canadian economy and society over a life-time. 

4. Citizenship as a privilege

The Conservative government has worked to undermine the post-World War II consensus that citizenship is a right, arguing that instead it ought to be treated as a privilege

Significant and questionable changes have been introduced, which make citizenship harder to access, and dependent on “behaving like a Canadian”. Citizenship can now be revoked for dual citizens accused of a large swath of crimes (the law is now being challenged in court as unconstitutional); residency requirements for permanent residents awaiting citizenship are more difficult to fulfill; language requirements to gain citizenship have been made stricter, and previously exempt young and old immigrants must now also meet language requirements; the citizenship test has been made more challenging, and the passing grade more stringent.

The government defends these changes, saying that Canadian citizenship is being made more valuable to those who hold it.  It is on these same grounds – the grounds that certain behaviours and beliefs are “unCanadian” – that the Conservative government continues to insist that newcomers cannot wear the niqab when taking their citizenship oath, even as Canadian courts continue to deny the legality of restricting women in this way. 

All of these changes amount to a shifting understanding of citizenship as conditional on an ever-more stringent set of behavioural requirements. Citizenship can be rescinded, or refused, to those who do not demonstrate their commitment to Canadian values as interpreted by the government. 

5. Internal movement restrictions

The basic human right to move internally has been constrained by the Conservative government as well. Denying that the right to travel, or more generally the right to exit one’s country, is a basic human right, the Canadian government has developed protocols for cancelling passports and for expanding the set of people whose names are placed on the so-called “no-fly” list

More recently, citing the dangers of Canadians leaving Canada to fight in foreign wars, the Conservatives are campaigning on a promise to ban travel to destinations deemed terrorist hot spots. These restrictions, all of which are justified in the name of protecting national security, inevitably have a greater impact on Muslim citizens, many of whom are immigrants from countries at risk of being labelled “terrorist” hotspots. Without adequate oversight – and there is no evidence that a re-elected Conservative government will support oversight of its decisions more than it has done in the past – minority Canadians may well find themselves banned from visiting friends and family. While there are surely Canadians who represent security risks, any effort to contain them must be narrowly tailored to those who have provided evidence of wrongdoing. Blanket policies affecting minority populations are not justified by these threats. Instead, in pursuing these policies, the Conservatives propagate the idea that Muslim citizens especially are dangerous and disloyal.

The integration of migrants into Canadian society had been a long-term success story, but these shifts are ugly.  They signal a transition from a society that welcomes immigrants as Canadians, to whom the full complement of rights and privileges are granted nearly immediately, to a society that treats immigrants as instrumental, and as deserving of Canadian state protection only until they prove their worthiness.  Migrants admitted under these conditions may feel lucky to be in Canada, but they will not be loyal in the ways that motivated their predecessors to make Canada strong.

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