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VANCOUVER—Refugees who flee persecution and look for safety might want to think twice before coming to Canada through smuggling operations—at least that’s the message the Conservative majority government seems to be sending.
The federal parliament is set to pass Bill C-4 (formerly Bill C-49 and commonly known as the “anti-smuggling bill”), which would impose a mandatory one-year detention on any person who arrives in Canada via unconventional means. This could mean imprisonment of men, women and children who, facing desperate situations, failed to apply for and obtain refugee status before escaping their home countries for Canada.
The bill has received little support outside of the Conservative Party. Canada's three other political parties in the House of Commons, as well as human rights advocates and critics, are hoping to fight it off.
The Conservative Party has repeatedly said the bill is meant to protect Canadians and criminalize smugglers and smuggling operations, not to demonize refugees.
Critics of the bill, including Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International Canada, disagree. Amnesty International says that the bill “will in reality punish people seeking protection in Canada.”
Before the bill comes into effect, concrete evidence is scarce as to whether the proposed legislation would protect or punish refugees.
Australia provides a relevant example. Since 1992, the country has practised mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrive by unconventional means. In fact, the Canadian government has consulted over the years with Australia to learn from their anti-smuggling legislation. Bill C-4 is modelled loosely on its Australian equivalent.
The Dominion recently spoke to Mark Goudkamp to find out how the Australian legislation is affecting refugees. Goudkamp is the co-founder of Refugee Action Coalition in Australia, a grassroots organization that has campaigned against mandatory detention of refugees since 2000.
Excerpts from the conversation follow:
On how the anti-smuggling policy works in Australia:
“The Australian policy makes it illegal to bring in asylum seekers. It imposes jail sentences of up to ten years for people who organize the trips and it even criminalizes anyone who might spend money to help someone get on the boats. The government uses the rhetoric of human smugglers constantly, without asking the question of who these people being detained are.
“As an example, say there was an Afghan or Tamil family here in our community and they raise money for someone stranded in Malaysia or Indonesia, which is the main transit point for refugees to come to Australia. They spend money on these people so that they can use the money to pay for a smuggler. But then they could also be charged for helping these people, who are desperate.
“Not only that, there are hundreds of Indonesian boat crew members who are offered work as cooks or general hands on these smuggling boats. And they accept those jobs because there’s no more work left in their dying fishing industry. Many of these people are now in maximum-security jails in Australia.”
On whether there’s evidence that mandatory detention in Australia has deterred smuggling operations:
"The argument the government uses is that mandatory detention deters people from getting into boats, which is rubbish. People leave because they're fleeing persecution. And no matter how hard the policy is, they're going to do that.
“In fact, Australia’s human rights commissioner has just condemned one of the detention centres in Western Australia. She said many of the asylum seekers are dying from the inside out. She released a report talking about the number of self-harm incidents, suicide attempts and hunger strikes in the centre. She was basically trying to say that the mandatory detention centre isn’t deterring people from seeking asylum, but is harming them.
“There are also increasing mainstream voices, like the Australian Medical Association, that have come out against mandatory detention. Even the head of immigration, who has been a supporter of government policy historically, just a few weeks ago raised the question as to whether mandatory detention was working from the government’s perspective.”
On the lives of refugees who live in Australian detention centres:
“They can watch TV and access the internet, but they can’t go outside when they want. They can’t shop. They can’t contact people. They can’t go and get jobs or use the skills they have. They can’t gain new skills. They can’t send money back to their families at home. They know the Australian community sees them as a drain on society’s resources, and this kills their soul.
“The actual physical conditions, well, it’s not like a slum that’s infested with cockroaches and rats, it’s not. But it’s more the psychological impact of being in there that’s harmful.
“I mean, there are now 872 children in detention as of July 31; those are the most recent statistics. I saw a couple of kids at my last visit to a detention centre, and one of them was a seven-year-old girl. During the school year, she goes to an immigrant primary school everyday and comes back to the centre everyday. But besides that, she and others can’t come and go as they please. Now that the school holiday has started, she was asking her mother, 'Mom, why can’t we got out and go do this? Are we bad people?'
“So, you know, people shouldn't be in that situation. Not to mention that she also has a one-year-old brother who was born in the detention centre. Sadly, their parents recently received a negative security assessment from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and can’t be accepted into the country for reasons unknown to the family or me. But the irony is that they did receive refugee status from immigration officials, which says they face persecution at home. So, since they can’t go home, they’re left with two choices: 1) find a third country to go to; or 2) stay in detention forever.
“Unless our campaign can overthrow these policies and get a more humanitarian perspective, they're going to be condemned for many, many years in this situation.
“Every individual story is moving. Once people hear the stories of these humans who the government tries to demonize, well, it becomes a lot harder for them to believe all the government’s bullshit.”
On why mandatory detention still exists in Australia:
“I actually think that the policy of mandatory detention is just as much about a feeling of insecurity and hysteria in the general Australian population, as it is about punishing foreigners. If people are jailed like this, it sends a message to the public that: a) they’re undesirable; b) they’ve done something wrong; and c) they can be used to divert people’s anger against things happening in Australian society, such as cuts to working conditions and cuts to public services, and so people have a useful scapegoat and a useful target for their anger and their grieving for why their lives are shit.”
On the Canadian government’s choice of Australia as a role model:
"Word of warning for the Canadian government. No policy, no matter how harsh, is going to stop people fleeing persecution from trying to seek asylum—all it does is create animosity in society and create more distress for people already traumatized.
“Refugees could be aware that there’s a detention system in Australia, and they know it’s not going to be nice. But that concern is far outweighed by the need to get into a country that’s a signatory of the Refugee Convention. The short-term pain of being on a boat where you risk your life, and to spend a year or two in detention, is far preferable to rotting in a country, being absolutely terrified in their country of origin, being killed, and having absolutely zero prospect of a future for you and your family.”
Stephanie Law is a journalist based in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories. Questions? Comments? Drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.