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“It’s Time We Address Canada’s Double-Sided Refugee Policies”

June 20, 2022

This World Refugee Day, Let’s Hold Canada Accountable.

Waghma (she/her) is a 2022 Social Connectedness Fellow, and is passionate about human rights and refugee policy. She is currently working with Human Rights Watch on their on-going campaign, #WelcomeToCanada. This campaign is calls on Canadian authorities to stop incarcerating immigration detainees in provincial jails – a practice that is a violation of Canada’s international human rights obligations. She is interested in finding more ways to include newcomers in all aspects of social discourse and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Toronto.

We have reached yet another World Refugee Day. This is the day Canadians pride ourselves in  providing refuge for those seeking protection from persecution, terror and war, because  “diversity is Canada’s strength.” Most recently, Canada promised to give its unwavering support and assistance to incoming Ukrainian refugees. For example, the Government of Canada has created various new legal avenues to allow these asylum seekers to reach Canadian shores and regulate their legal status in Canada, whether temporarily or permanently. This includes priority status on their refugee cases and additions to their applications such as applying for work permits and direct cash payments to assist in resettlement. 

These new legal avenues are applaudable, admirable, and show us that there are better ways to support incoming refugees. Unfortunately, there is, and always has been, a double-sided story to Canada’s refugee and immigration policies. Canada has a history of turning away and upholding biased policies and practices against racialized refugees. In the late 1800s, Canada implemented a “Chinese head tax” to restrict Chinese immigrants from remaining in the country, and during the Holocaust, the government turned away hundreds of Jewish refugees due to anti-Semitism. These policies are some of the most notorious cases and instances of Canada’s biased and harmful refugee practices, but some of the most recent instances include Canada’s handling of Afghan refugees last year. 

The same promises of “safety and security” given to Ukrainian refugees were also given to the Afghan refugees last August, during the Taliban takeover. However, the swift, humane, and effective refugee policies established for Ukrainian refugees were not implemented for Afghan refugees. This is evident from the total number of refugees that have entered Canada in the last 8 months. For example, over 7,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Canada in the 3 months between January and March 2022, whereas only 8,580 Afghan refugees arrived in Canada between August 2021 and March 2022; of the 40,000 that were promised. Not to mention, there are allegations of thousands of applications for Afghan refugees having gone missing and are still unaccounted for. Canada has failed in its promise to Afghan refugees and is yet to find any solution to this problem. However, for the recent Ukrainian refugees, Canada has set up not only ways to help bring in refugees but also funding for those Ukrainians internally displaced, with great precision, clarity and care.

Watching this treatment of Ukrainian refugees led me to understand how different our refugee and immigration systems can be. How welcoming and how swift our governments could be to accommodate refugees and make their transitions into a new country so easily accessible, and even adhere to the principles of social connectedness. For example, Ukrainian refugees are given numerous benefits that other marginalized and racialized refugees have not received or will be receiving. Big retailers, celebrities, and corporations have tried to  acknowledge, respect, and recognize the plight of Ukrainian refugees. Furthermore, there is limited questioning or doubt surrounding Ukrainian’s refugee claims, or the validity of their claims for asylum.  Organizations such as, “Global Citizen” have raised billions of dollars in their “Stand Up for Ukraine” campaign, which not only raises money but also educates people on the culture, history, and circumstances of these Ukrainian refugees. This campaign, and many others like it, humanize the refugee and makes the world see these Ukrainians in a far different light than the Haitian, Afghan, and Mali refugees, who are currently being replaced, removed from, and questioned at both international and domestic borders.

Now, to avoid confusion, I would like to make clear that I support the swift actions taken by governments to support Ukrainian refugees, and I believe that we should continue to support them in all respects. However, when looking at these double standards, particularly in Canada, my mind quickly shifts to the refugees who are incarcerated, the refugees who have been in this country for years without status, the refugees who have been abandoned, and the refugees who have been mistreated and abused by the CBSA. Ukrainian refugees face more bridges than walls or borders to Canada’s refugee and immigration system. They do not need to wait years to have their visas approved, nor do they have to wait months to be eligible to work and generate an income. For many of these refugees, they will not have to enter immigration detention centers, nor ever worry about deportation. 

Some have argued that Ukrainian refugees are different from other refugees. To that, I ask readers to pause and think. What about them makes them any different? Are the struggles of other refugees not admirable enough? Are their wars not broadcast enough? Are the death tolls not high enough, or is their skin simply not white enough?  

I once again implore readers to really pause and think deeply about those refugees here in Canada who do not have the representation and recognition that they need to be treated not only like any other Canadian, but like any other human. I call on readers to stand behind all refugees this World Refugee Day. I ask that we hold our government accountable. And, equally importantly, that we stop hiding behind these false narratives of fairness, equity and catchphrases such as, “diversity is Canada’s strength”.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SCSC.