Welcoming Syrians, detaining others

Welcoming Syrians, detaining others

By Philippe Bourbeau

The newly elected Trudeau government seems to be moving quickly on one of its promises made during the federal election campaign: to accept 25,000 Syrians by January 1, 2016.

On November 9, while announcing the formation of a sub-committee of cabinet ministers to expedite the refugee initiative, the minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, John McCallum, spoke about the role of the army in this initiative because “military bases could be one of the locations in which these people are lodged.”

The Liberal government’s plan, announced November 24, moves their self-imposed deadline to the end of February, 2016. Although details about how the Syrian refugees initiative are scarce, federal officials have said that the military bases are on standby for refugee arrivals in what is now referred to as Operation Provision. People scheduled to be on the bases for training purposes have been moved to other wings or to rental accommodation to free up space, should it be needed for refugee accommodation. Yet everything seems to indicate that the government intends to use the military bases only as temporary accommodation while organizing the swift resettlement of refugees into Canadian cities.

This policy stands in in stark contrast to the fate of many others coming to Canada as refugees. Too often and when arriving in large groups, they are detained in correctional facilities and detention centers. As the Syrians are not arriving as asylum-seekers by sea, in a spontaneous, unannounced way, they are not subject to Canadian laws that impose lengthy periods of detention on asylum-seekers. Indeed, detaining asylum seekers and would-be immigrants arriving by sea in correctional facilities is not new in Canada; it has become a normal course of action for Canada in the past 15 years.

Detaining asylum seekers arriving by sea in correctional facilities has become a normal course of action for Canada

Consider, for example, the so-called “Chinese Summer.” During the late summer/early fall of 1999, Canadian authorities intercepted four decrepit boats off Canada’s western shores over the course of 11 weeks. Crammed into the boats were 599 Chinese asylum seekers. Canadian authorities transformed parts of the Department of National Defense’s military base of Esquimalt near Victoria into an improvised detention center. The majority of the “passengers” of the crumbling boats were sent to the military base and detained within a barbed wire protected detention center. While the majority of the children were released into the care of British Columbia’s Ministry of Children and Family Development, the majority of the adults were transferred into a prison in Prince George.

On October 17, 2009, Canadian security officials seized the Ocean Lady, a decrepit vessel with 76 men from Sri Lanka on board. All were immediately detained. On August 13, 2010, Canadian authorities intercepted the MV Sun Sea, a rusty Thai-flagged cargo ship, and docked it at the Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt. Jam-packed into the ramshackle boat were 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers — 380 men, 63 women, and 49 children, including 6 unaccompanied children. All were immediately detained.

The men were put in a high-security prison, the women without children in another prison, and the mothers, with their children, in a youth custody facility. The adults without children were detained for about 6 months while the children and their mothers were detained for up to 7 months.

Canadian detention centers, officially called Immigration Holding Centers, are run as medium-security prisons: razor-wires top the fences, personal effects are confiscated on arrival, security guards and surveillance cameras are omnipresent, wake-up times are regulated by inflexible rules, solitary confinements rooms are used for troubled (or suicidal) detainees, detainees are handcuffed during transportation, and hospitalized detainees are generally chained to their hospital beds.

In part to facilitate and ease the security practices of detaining asylum seekers arriving by boats on Canada’s shores, the Harper government passed in 2012 Bill C-31, an Act amending the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of 2002.

Among other things, Bill C-31 gives the Minister of Public Safety discretionary power to order the arrival in Canada of a group of persons to be designated as an “irregular arrival.” A migrant who is part of an “irregular arrival” automatically becomes a “designated foreign national” and Bill C-31 specifies that detention of a “designated foreign national” is mandatory for those who are 16 years of age or older. Under Bill C-31, detention continues if the Minister is of the opinion that the identity of the “designated foreign national” has not been established. This opens the door to prolonged detention as, even if the identity of a migrant has been established, it might not be to the satisfaction of the Minister.

Paradoxically, imprisoning refugees in detention centers is a non-punitive practice made possible through administrative and executive power

It is also important to note that immigration detention is not formally a punishment; it does not require a criminal conviction. As paradoxical as it may sound, imprisoning refugees in detention centers is a non-punitive practice made possible through administrative and executive power. In fact, it is precisely because detention is not for a criminal purpose but for an immigration purpose that the Federal Court of Canada has found indefinite/prolonged detention constitutionally valid and thus possible.

The provision of “designated foreign nationals” has another important consequence.Although there is no durational limit to the detention of immigrants in Canada, it has created a distinct regime for reviewing the reasons for continued detention. The new regime significantly differs from existing detention review regimes for permanent residents, foreign nationals, and persons named in security certificates.

While the existing detention review regime provides that the reasons for continued detention be subjected to a mandatory review by the Immigration Division within two days of the start of detention, at least once during the seven days following the two-day review, and at least once during every thirty-day period thereafter, the new regime stipulates that the reasons for continued detention of a “designated foreign nationals” be subjected to a mandatory review within 14 days of the start of detention and every six months following the conclusion of the previous review—and the review may not be conducted before the six months have expired.

Amid the howls of horror over the Paris attacks of November 13 we heard several calls to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Canada, especially after a Syrian passport was found near the body of a dead suicide bomber. As I write, it is not clear however whether the passport belonged to one of the killers or whether it is a fake passport. This certainly needs to be treated with caution. Confusing refugees and terrorists is empirically questionable and morally dangerous.

How the Canadian government responds to what some have called one of the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe and beyond since World War II will have tremendous consequences for many years to come. The federal plan is far from perfect — 25,000 seems a small number given the millions asking for help and Canada’s decision not to include unaccompanied men seeking asylum is problematic — but it is certainly a major step in a good direction. Prime Minister Trudeau recently said “we want these families arriving to be welcomed, not feared. […] This is not just about welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees, this is about welcoming 25,000 new Canadians.” These are frightfully positive words. Let us hope the Syrian refugees won’t be the only ones benefiting from it.

Philippe Bourbeau is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK.


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