We Must Not Close the Doors to Spontaneously Arriving Asylum Seekers

We Must Not Close the Doors to Spontaneously Arriving Asylum Seekers
Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

By Stephanie J. Silverman

Governments understandably focus on enhancing security, surveillance, and risk management for their citizens, and as we have seen, particularly since 9-11, much of this increased attention is directed at national borders. While every person enjoys the legal right to seek asylum in Canada, the UK, the US, and any other signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, spontaneously arriving non-citizens are increasingly criminalized, securitized, and unfairly stigmatized. Most countries operate administrative tribunals, known as refugee status determination (RSD) processes, where claims for asylum are judged. The RSD process, however, does not include refugees relocated through responsibility sharing programs, such as the 25,000 Syrian refugees vetted through a five-step program and then flown directly to their new lives in Canada through private sponsorship.

In Canada, Members of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) adjudicate this country’s RSD process for spontaneous arrivals. The RSD process is a balancing act between moving cases quickly and efficiently, and respecting the dignity, due process rights, and specific circumstances of individuals. When the former Conservative Government came to power in January 2006, there was a backlog of about 20,000 refugee claims; that number grew in five years to 62,000, with a wait time increase of 44 percent. The number of new asylum claims in Canada continues to grow: there were 10,356 claims in 2013, 16,521 in 2015, and 2016 is expected to top 20,000 new claims. To add more layers of complexity, Conservative policy instructed the IRB to hear the claims of new arrivals ahead of so-called “legacy” cases, leaving thousands in a state of perpetual limbo.

Against this background, the Conservative Government was keen to identify, separate, and target for removal “bogus refugees” with “socio-economic motivations,” not fears of persecution for which asylum claims are granted. For the Conservative Government, the “bogus refugee” posed a “threat” to the RSD process and to the Canadian people writ large. Despite shocking revelations that Alan Kurdi’s aunt had been desperately trying to sponsor her family members to Canada, the Conservative Government refused to direct resources to improve the RSD process.

With the “bogus refugee” label often proactively applied to Romani refugee claimants, some scholars charge the Conservative Government with seeping institutional racism into the RSD process. Currently, asylum seekers who independently migrate to Canada are also rhetorically funnelled into an either/or relationship with the sponsored Syrian refugees. As satirized here, a similar binary of fraud versus deservingness is underway in the Mediterranean region where drowning migrants are mourned as refugees, but survivors are accused of migrating to Europe for financial gain.

Another way to speed up the RSD process as well as cut down on “bogus refugees” is simply to limit the number of people spontaneously arriving at the border. Again, along with altruism and global responsibility sharing for displaced people, this is partly a motivation for the Canadian program in bringing handpicked Syrians through private sponsorship. It also percolates throughout Canada’s so-called Safe Third Country Agreement with the US whereby asylum seekers are legally obligated to lodge their refugee claims in their first country of arrival, even if they are transiting through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on the way to reunite with family in Ottawa where legal and support networks would be stronger.

Canada is not alone in preferring transnational partnerships and private sponsorships to spontaneous arrivals. US Congressional and Executive efforts to come to terms with the tens of thousands of Central Americans attempting to traverse Mexico to claim American asylum from rampant violence, organized criminal gangs, and poverty  have resulted in paying for more interdiction efforts in Mexico. Another clear, pressing example of this hierarchy and its dangers is seen in the UK’s ongoing refusal to accept France’s request to resettle more people from the now-demolished makeshift migrant settlement known as the Jungle. Erected on sandy scrubland in Calais, France, just 33 kilometres across the English Channel from the picturesque Cliffs of Dover, Jungle residents wanted to claim their legal right to asylum in the UK but were physically stopped in France. Many people died attempting to cross to the UK, including a 14-year-old Afghan boy, killed in a hit and run accident on a French motorway while attempting to reach his brother and two uncles living in the UK.

By September 2016, the camp’s population was estimated to be at least 10,000. According to a medical field report, the camp’s “shortcomings in shelter, food and water safety, personal hygiene, sanitation and security are likely to have detrimental long-term health consequences for the camp’s residents over their lifecourse.” An estimated 1,200 unaccompanied or separated children were living alone in the Calais Jungle, of whom the youngest were two 8-year-old boys. Interestingly, the UNHCR welcomed the closure of the camp on humanitarian grounds, even though France has yet to confirm plans for housing those left homeless by the camp’s demolition.

UK efforts to resettle Afghan children are being stymied by racialized criticisms that some Jungle residents are actually adult economic migrants posing as children, an issue that I explore in-depth in a forthcoming paper for Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Forced Migration. Yet, such accusations are not dissimilar from the broad Conservative Government brushstrokes characterizing Romani refugee claimants as bogus. While it is not inherently wrong to favour UNHCR-vetted refugees, Canadians should be mindful that casting aspersion on all spontaneously arriving asylum seekers looks very much like a slippery slope towards racism.

Stephanie J. Silverman is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and a Bora Laskin National Fellow in Human Rights Research.

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