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On Refugee Rights Day, it’s Time for Canada to Step Up

IOM / Rafael Rodríguez. Central American migrants arriving in the town of Matías Romero, Oaxaca in November 2018
April 4, 2019

There’s a moral necessity to recognize and address the refugee crisis on our own continent.

Today, April 4th, is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. It’s an annual opportunity to raise awareness of an essential reality: People who have been forced to flee their homes deserve sanctuary, legal recognition, and the basic resources they need to lead healthy and dignified lives.

Canada has been a leader with respect to refugee issues. The Federal government has been working to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, and, for decades, the country has been a model for the world in terms of private sponsorship programs to facilitate refugees’ integration into life in a new land.

Still, on this Refugees Rights Day, it’s clear: We need to grow our commitment. Even as recognized leaders on global refugee issues, we, as Canadians, are not acting on a scale sufficient to address the scope of current challenges.

Consider the humanitarian crisis unfolding on our own hemisphere. Unprecedented numbers of people are fleeing war-like levels of violence and other severe challenges in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. It is not just widely-reported gang violence but a confluence of domestic violence, extreme poverty, effects of climate change and corruption , among other factors that are forcing people to risk everything to seek safety.

With progressive refugee laws allowing migrants fleeing a variety of threats to seek asylum in Mexico, the country is making efforts to host people forced to flee within its borders. However, in practice, multi-year backlogs in the asylum system leave people stuck in prolonged limbo. With 500,000 migrants arriving in Mexico each year, it’s increasingly clear that the country doesn’t have capacity to continue receiving so many arrivals on its own. Less than a third of asylum requests in Mexico in 2018 were even processed, and people migrating through Mexico — including many who jump the high-speed freight train, La Bestia — are highly vulnerable to injury, crime, and abuse. Women, children, unaccompanied minors, LGBT migrants, individuals with disabilities and older migrants face the most acute dangers.

A 2017 Médecins Sans Frontières report revealed that 68.3% of migrants surveyed in Mexico reported being victims of violent attacks on their journey.

It’s increasingly evident: The United States, under the Trump Administration, is not willing to be a good faith partner in upholding the rights of refugees. The US policy of perfunctory detention and deportation is not compatible with a human rights approach.

We can’t simply see the refugee crisis as someone else’s problem. It’s our own. People are fleeing Central America because of severe challenges that result from global economic and environmental change as well as the legacies of the brutal wars of the late 20th Century — wars in which Central American countries were made to suffer for the geopolitical interests of foreign powers. In short, we need to recognize our shared history as a region. As people of the Americas, we have a collective responsibility to protect these lives. Right now, it’s up to Canada to provide sanctuary and resettlement to Central American refugees. To date, we’re falling far short of our potential.

In 2017, Canada resettled only 28 refugees from Central America.

Without resettlement, migrants fleeing violence have few legal or safe pathways to arrive on our soil. If a refugee succeeds in making it all the way through Mexico to the border with the United States, she would then have to travel all the way up to the Canadian border and cross irregularly in order to claim asylum. According to the Safe Third Country Agreement, if she attempts to claim asylum at an official border crossing, she would be turned back under the premise that she should have sought asylum in the United States.

If Canada aspires to be a champion of human rights globally, we must live up to the letter of the human rights treaties and conventions we’ve signed. In 1951 in Geneva, Canada was one of 145 nation-states that vowed to offer asylum to people unwilling or unable to return to their countries due to a fear of persecution. We acknowledged that claiming asylum would, in many cases, require illegal entry, and we agreed not to penalize people for doing so. Fundamental to this convention was the principle of non-refoulement, meaning we and other parties would not return someone to a territory “where he or she fears threats to freedom and safety.” Sixty-eight years later, we’re forgetting this commitment when it comes to people on our very own continent.

It is not too late to change course and announce a concerted national strategy to support Central Americans seeking asylum.

Of course, this shouldn’t just be a legal obligation. This is a cause we ought to feel deeply in our hearts. The pain of being rejected and ignored — of being without a home — goes far beyond the pain of material deprivation. It’s profound social isolation. It’s an injustice all of us should commit to ending in our world. It’s a question of what value as a human family.

As Canadians, we have the power to help change this situation. We shouldn’t shy away from our power — we should use it. As Martin Luther King put it, power — the strength to “bring about social, political or economic changes” — is “not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice.”

On this Refugee Rights Day, we can and should celebrate Canada’s commitment and progress on vital challenges around the world. But we need to keep our eyes open. People forced to flee their homes in Central America need our help. Let’s use our power, and live up to our values and our potential.

Kim Samuel is founder and Jessica Farber is a Strategic Initiatives Coordinator at the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization devoted to addressing social isolation and building belonging in the world.