Canada’s growing culture of refugee exclusion

Posted by admin on Dec 14th, 2012

by Krystle Alarcon
Jason Wong came from China as a refugee in 1987 to avoid aborting his child, who was conceived out of wedlock – as family law at the time persecuted unplanned babies. That baby, born in Vancouver, is now a 25-year old student who currently supports Wong, as he cannot legally work in Canada since he was given a deportation order in 1989.

His daughter, Susan Wong, said the Canadian government could not deport her father because his documents were lost within the non-digital system of the 1980s. “He couldn’t stay and he couldn’t leave,” Wong said. “So he doesn’t have identity in either places.”

The father and daughter duo’s names have been changed since they are currently fighting the deportation and fear exposing their story would influence Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC).

But Wong is not alone. Almost 25,000 refugees fight exclusion claims every year, according to a report by two law professors from the University of British Columbia, Ashal Kaushal and Catherine Dauvergne, entitled “The Growing Culture of Exclusion: Trends in Canadian Refugee Exclusions.”

Just like Wong, when Jose Figueroa, a Salvadoran refugee, received his deportation order, his first thought was how his Canadian-born children’s lives would change forever.

“If the Minister of Public Safety and the Minister of Immigration were in this room today I would ask them: why are you deporting Canadian children?” Jose Figueroa’s son, Jose Ivan Figuerora,15, posed this question to a roaring crowd of 120 people at a community supper organized by the anti-racist group No One Is Illegal on Nov.26.

Figueroa was given a deportation order based on his student activism more than 20 years ago in El Salvador. The organization he was involved in, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, has become a legal party in 1992 and formed government since then.

When he spoke after his son at the community supper, Figueroa likened his involvement with the FMLN to a person who stands up against bullying. He recalled his friend named Juan Valladares, who helped him fight his bullies in elementary school. Always a champion of the underdog, he later got involved with the liberation movement of the FMLN and was burnt to death by Salvadoran military. He accused the Canadian government of flipping the script – of “categorizing a group” as terrorist, when he and Valladares were the ones protecting the Salvadoran people against a government “using a death squad to control the people.”

The FMLN is still part of the elected coalition party. “The Canadian government has diplomatic relations with El Salvador,” Figueroa said. “The legal basis to bring in any Salvadoran that is a member of FMLN to admissibility processes doesn’t make any sense,” he added.

The allegation against Figueroa as a terrorist is challenging –  as it is for anyone pinned with the label. “Despite its frequent invocation by politicians, the public, and even the judiciary in the context of asylum seekers, the word ‘terrorism’ does not appear in the [United Nations] 1951 Convention and is not a listed ground of exclusion,” Kaushal and Dauvergne state in their report. “There is no internationally ac­cepted legal definition of terrorism.”

Figueroa moved to BC 15 years ago and has worked for two different factories for ten and five years respectively, despite formerly working as a teacher in El Salvador before migrating. He fears for the safety of his children, especially his eldest autistic son, if they had to move to El Salvador. “There are a lot of gangs, they also don’t know the language very well. They could have some problems adapting,” he said.

Even though only he and his wife were given the deportation order, it signifies the deportation of  the entire family to Figueroa. He said “the end result” would be that his Canadian-born son and two daughters would be stripped of their rights to citizenship. “We’re not just going to leave them here,” Figueroa said.

Figueroa is being deported on the allegation that FMLN is a terrorist organization, despite it being a legitimate party now. His association with it therefore classifies him as a terrorist. This practice is not uncommon, Kaushal and Davuergne found in their report.

“The Canadian judiciary has refused to differentiate between freedom fighters and terrorists, and has not sought guidance in international humanitarian law to delineate the conditions in which national liberation movements may resort to force,” the stated in their research.

A stroke of luck

In the wake of 9/11, authorities have created stricter rules on refugees seeking asylum in Canada through the creation of the omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act in December 2001.

Jose Figueroa said he feels that his chance of gaining citizenship in Canada is a gambling game – that “the immigration law is kind of a lottery” – that his fate is completely in the hands of one Canadian Border Services Agency officer.

Karla Lottini, a Mexican journalist who blew the whistle alleging that corruption was rampant within the government ministry of the National Council for Culture and Arts, echoed Figueroa’s statement. “My case is one of them that are very lucky because I am maybe one percent or less – who won [their exclusion cases].” Lottin’s story was told last year by David P. Ball in the Vancouver Observer.

“[We] are all struggling every day,” she said.

Indeed, refugees make up only 8.8 to 13.6 percent of all accepted permanent residents in Canada between 2001 to 2011. Economic immigrants consistently make up an average of 60 percent or higher for the same years, and family sponsorships usually a quarter of all intakes.

A former political science student at UBC, Caroline Chingcuanco, created a blog campaign called “We are Jose,” where she and other artists sketch portraits of people who support Figueroa. The art pieces are an effort to “change the narrative on what it means to be Canadian,” Chingcuanco said, as she sees herself no different from Figueroa  – despite obtaining citizenship through her parents, who were economic immigrants.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter

Because of  the complicated routes refugees have to take in order to gain a stake in Canada, Figueroa applied for residency through Humanitarian and Compassionate Grounds – which factors in the best interests of the family and how settled they are in the country. The application was approved “in principle,” Figueroa said, in 2004. However, he still has to be cleared of the deportation order to be able to stay peacefully in Canada.

The designation of terrorist is a lot trickier to handle, as terrorism and crimes against humanity have been conflated by the Canadian court system since 9/11, Kaushal and Dauvergne said in their report. “This ignores the legitimate uses of violent resistance under international law,” they stated.

The lines were blurred in a 2001 case, when a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, Manickavasagam Suresh, faced charges of terrorism. He fundraised for the World Tamil Movement, which supports the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealem (LTTE), deemed a terrorist organization by 32 countries.

The Supreme Court refused to consider experts’ testimonies on differentiating between the LTTE’s attacks on civilians and their movement towards self-determination.  Worse, the Suresh case set a precedent for Canadian courts to be able to persecute individuals for an organization’s acts with little proof of what that person was responsible for – in essence,one becomes guilty by association.

At Figueroa’s court hearing, Immigration Refugee Board adjudicator Otto Nupponen exemplified the broad definition of terrorism in the Suresh case as grounds to deport Figueroa. Nupponen acknowledged that “there’s some legitimacy” to the FMLN’s goal to eliminate death squads, and that it “hardly can be said” that it is a terrorist organization now. He also admitted that Figueroa merely convinced people to “understand new and potentially better political realities”  –  but that he is still inadmissible.

Falling through the cracks

Susan Wong faces another level of refugee exclusion, as her father became a denied refugee claimant when Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney implemented cuts to health care for refugees this past May.

Among the cuts to Interim Federal Health are treatments and medications for prenatal care, emergency cases and chronic diseases – people having heart attacks would not be treated. A recently formed group, Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care, has since rallied in front of MP’s offices, delivered petitions, and banded with other medical professionals to protest the cuts. They assert that the cuts are “unjust” and would cost more to tax payers in the long run.

Jason Wong was diagnosed with cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease at the exact same time the cuts were introduced. He was directly affected by the slashed services.

Despite the cuts, Susan Wong said that the most “scarring” experience of it all was how her father was treated by CBSA officers when she was around 15 years old.

“My parents didn’t speak English and they dragged my dad out of our house,” she said. “This guy shoved my mom so hard she had fallen and my dad was literally gripping to the sides of the apartment door.” Her father did not have shoes on, so she hesitantly threw him a pair when the officers separated them.

He has since been forced to report to the CBSA once a month but has been granted a more lenient timeframe of once every three months since he was diagnosed with fatal diseases.

As the Wong family are already considered low-income, Susan has to work extra hard to keep her father alive. He has only recently been granted a legal work permit, after almost three decades of residing in Vancouver, with the help of No One Is Illegal and the Wong’s local MP, Peter Julian.

Asked what she would say to Jason Kenney given the chance, Wong sighed, paused and swallowed some tears.

“I would tell him that he’s… made my family’s life a living hell,” she said.

Minister Kenney did not respond to requests for comments on this article.

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