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Meaning what you say, saying what you mean

Last Thursday, the Conservative government reintroduced its so-called anti-smuggling bill. The bill seeks to penalize asylum seekers who attempt to enter Canada through purportedly “irregular” means by creating two classes of refugee seekers based purely on their mode of arrival into Canada. Bill C-4 is more or less substantively identical to its predecessor bill, and suffers from the same serious deficiencies. (For all the talk about how this is an “anti-smuggler” bill, there is no mention of smugglers until at least ten pages into it.)

As the BCCLA discusses in its recent position paper, this legislation on its face violates key provisions of the UN Refugee Conventions and would likely be unable to withstand constitutional scrutiny, as well. Our concerns about this legislation are detailed at length in the position paper, so we won’t repeat them here. What we do want to talk about is the continuing use of misleading rhetoric in the public discourse around this bill, because, as Erika Feller, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the UNHCR, recently put it:

It is an increasing fight to prevent refugees being mischaracterised as illegal immigrants, common criminals or, worse, potential terrorists in the minds of peoples and governments.

In what appears to be an attempt to drum up support for this deeply problematic and discriminatory piece of legislation, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews have been making the rounds with the press. Their remarks, as reported by the CBC and The Globe and Mail, are troubling.

For example, according to the CBC, Minister Toews claims that the bill does not target “legitimate refugees.” But what is a “legitimate refugee”? The UN Refugee Conventions — to which Canada and virtually every other nation in the world are signatories — make plain that the legitimacy of a refugee claim is based on whether an individual has a “well-founded fear” of persecution should she be returned to her country of origin. Whether a refugee is “legitimate” has nothing to do with whether she arrived via boat or plane, singly or in a group. It has nothing to do with whether she was able to obtain a visa before entering the country of refuge, or if she illegally entered that country, or had to rely on a smuggler to get her to safety. And all this is enshrined in Article 31 of the Refugee Conventions. To characterize a refugee claimant as “illegitimate” simply based on the manner of arrival into the country of refuge violates one of the core principles of international protection.

Likewise, the concept of “queue-jumping” — which made a reappearance in the G&M‘s coverage — is misleading, because when it comes to fleeing persecution, there is no such thing as a “queue”. Seeking asylum is a very different thing from ordinary immigration. Again, per Erika Feller:

A refugee is someone who is unable to continue to live in safety where he or she is, due to the dangers of war, generalized violence or serious civil disturbance, whether this is targeted or indiscriminate. Fleeing and seeking asylum is the only realistic option for these people and their families.

In such circumstances, there is no such thing as waiting in line. Asylees must remove themselves from life-threatening situations to places of safety, and from there, await adjudication on the legitimacy of their claims for asylum.

The accuracy of terminology is important, because despite Minister Kenney’s assertion in the G&M that “We have this phenomenal situation where Canada is the only Western liberal democracy with virtually no xenophobic or anti-immigrant voices in our public discourse,” one need only look at the reader comments on that same article to see the inaccuracy of his claim. Characterizing individuals seeking refuge and protection as illegal immigrants or lawbreakers is misleading and counter-factual, and does nothing to advance reasoned discourse on matters relating to immigration, national security, or humanitarian protection. Something to think about on this World Refugee Day.