Saturday, September 26, 2020

Canada Has a War Crimes Problem

 

A graveyard at Wescam built by Homes not Bombs to remember the victims of the company's drone warfare equipment.

Canada Has a War Crimes Problem

By Matthew Behrens

            Two new reports on Canadian weapons exports reveal that Canadian-based corporate entities (and, by extension, government agencies that support and encourage their exports) are complicit in the commission of war crimes in Yemen, Turkey, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. These findings build on previously raised concerns that the Canadian military was complicit in war crimes during the occupation of Afghanistan (including when current war minister Harjit Sajjan operated there as a soldier).

Earlier this month, the United Nations criticized Canada, among other nations, for continuing to export weapons to all parties that fuel the commission of war crimes in Yemen.

“Yemen has been ravaged in ways that should shock the conscience of humanity,” said Melissa Parke, a member of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen that produced the report, Yemen: A Pandemic of Impunity in a Tortured Land. “Yemen has now experienced some six years of unremitting armed conflict, with no end in sight for the suffering of the millions of people caught in its grip.”

Kamel Jendoubi, who chaired the UN group, added: “After years of documenting the terrible toll of this war, no one can say ‘we did not know what was happening in Yemen’.”

 

Trudeau Fuels Saudi Weapons Experts

Yet despite the detailed, years-long public record documenting such crimes, the Trudeau regime has never taken any meaningful steps to end its government’s complicity. Indeed, during the April pandemic lockdown, the Trudeau government lifted its temporary suspension of weapons exports to the Saudi regime spearheading the war against Yemen, one imposed after Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul-based Saudi consulate. Meanwhile, Saudi-bound killer armoured vehicles are still rolling off the London, Ontario assembly line of General Dynamic Land Systems as part of a $15 billion contract that met the federal government’s definition of an “essential” workplace during the height of Covid-19’s first wave.

Since coming to power in 2015, the Trudeau government eagerly embraced the Harper-initiated weapons deal, with former Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion infamously signing the final contract in defiance of domestic and international law prohibitions, as well as giving a lie to the so-called feminist government’s own proclamations about respecting the rights of women and international “rule of law.”

Dion conceded he could not have mustered the intestinal fortitude to engage in such a criminal action without the assistance of then Minister of Trade Chrystia Freeland. He added however that he was afraid of what the Saudis would say if Canada did the right thing by refusing to participate in war crimes. “If you cancelled a contract of this magnitude, it will resonate everywhere …. And Saudi Arabia will have to react. Don't think they will praise Canada,” Dion said, as if criticism from one of the world’s worst human rights violators justified continued support for those violations.

In a similar statement that revealed Dion’s intense need to undertake self-awareness training, he told the Globe and Mail, “I think it's fair to say we are more concerned about human rights than the Harper government. That's what I think as a Liberal. That is for you to assess [whether] it's the case.”

 

Twisted Justifications for Criminality

Long after Dion left the Global Affairs bunker in Ottawa, the justifications for ongoing weapons exports to Saudi Arabia continue from a branch of the federal government that suffers from a major conflict of interest: on the one hand, it acts as a global pimp for the Canadian weapons industry, while on the other, it is empowered to determine whether or not its ravenous appetite for arms sales violates its treaty commitments. This past spring, in an echo of the Yoo memos that twisted the global anti-torture legal regime into a justification for Bush administration torture, Global Affairs’ report on Saudi weapons exports concluded that “there is no substantial risk that current Canadian exports of military goods and technology to KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] would be used by KSA to commit or facilitate serious violations of [International Humanitarian Law], including ‘internal repression.’” The report further found that there was no evidence to suggest Canada’s war exports would “undermine peace and security, either nationally or locally.” In fact, the report finds that Canada’s $15 billion in military exports to Saudi Arabia “contribute to regional peace and security.”

Global Affairs, in a bizarre and racist statement, clearly wants its readers to understand that Canada is on some high moral plateau because Saudi Arabia “has not committed to the same standards with respect to exports or the use of certain weapons.” Yet in another example of the self-awareness deficit that appears to dominate Global Affairs thinking, the report declares that Saudi Arabia is not a member of the Arms Trade Treaty (which Canada is violating with its arms exports to Saudi Arabia), the Mine Ban Treaty (which Canada violates by continuing to sell weapons to and participate in wars led by the US, which earlier this year committed to new production and deployment of land mines) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (horrific weapons which Saudi Arabia has used against residential areas, and the U.S refuses to ban). Despite these acknowledgements, Canada sees no problem trusting that the Saudis will not use Canadian-made weapons – whose singular purpose is to undermine peace and security – to actually undermine peace and security.

It’s not just on the battlefield where Canadian-made weapons make their mark. Canada’s weapons are equally useful in suppressing any form of dissent in Saudi Arabia. Remarkably, the bureaucrats at Global Affairs concluded in their evaluation of military support to the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia that, “it cannot be assumed that any use of military equipment to control protests is an illegitimate use, rather than a legitimate public security operation.” (Given that Canada regularly uses military equipment and resources to suppress Indigenous land defenders here at home, such a conclusion is not surprising, though it might shock U.S. generals who earlier this year said they were opposed to Donald Trump using the military to repress the American people.)

In a section that would be right at home in George Orwell’s 1984, the Global Affairs analysis also finds that Saudi Arabia is “a valued Canadian security partner” in the so-called war on terror, praising the terrorist Saudi regime because it is a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum that Canada currently co-chairs with Morocco.

 

Wescam’s Drone Tech Implicated

 Those on the receiving end of Canadian-exported weapons are not likely nodding in agreement that their lives have enjoyed greater peace and security. Indeed, a new report from Project Ploughshares on the commission of war crimes involving Canadian-made sensors and targeting equipment produced by Burlington, Ontario’s Wescam concludes that “Canada's export of Wescam sensors to Turkey poses a substantial risk of facilitating human suffering, including violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Canadian officials are obligated by international and Canadian law to mitigate the risks of such transfers, including through the denial of export permits, when such risks are apparent from the outset—which appears to be the case with Wescam exports to Turkey.”

            As with the Saudi killer vehicles contract, the news that Wescam is involved in producing technology used in repression and war crimes is nothing new. Indeed, in the early 2000s, Homes not Bombs documented how Wescam (at that time owned by L-3 Communications)  “supplies human rights violators (Colombia, Egypt, Algeria, China, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, U.S., and U.K), provides components used by the Hellfire-missile-armed US Air Force Predator, Cobra Attack Helicopter, & Vigilante chopper's Low Cost Precision Kill scheme;  L-3 Wescam ‘border control’ products prevent refugees from finding safety; L-3 Wescam outfits police forces to repress demonstrations and ‘public disturbances’; Wescam parent L-3 Communications Canada is ranked #1 war manufacturer (Canadian Defence Review, 2006);  and Wescam Parent company L-3 Communications supplies ‘interrogation’ teams allegedly implicated in torture in Iraq.”

Situated on a sideroad next to an elementary school in Burlington, the Wescam factory was the focus of years of protests by groups including Homes not Bombs, where dozens were arrested for seeking meetings with company officials to discuss their role in the war crimes of the day. These included the opening salvo of Bush administration use of armed drones to conduct extrajudicial assassinations in 2002, as well as ongoing complicity in the crimes committed by occupation forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other countries targeted by U.S. and allied forces.

            But Wescam’s complicity in crimes is not limited to some long-ago war on terror campaign. It is, as with any war manufacturer, an ongoing concern.  As Ploughshares notes, the Turkish military supplied by the Burlington company “has committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) and other violations, particularly when con­ducting airstrikes,” while Turkey has also exported its purchased Wescam technology to armed groups in Libya, “a blatant breach of the nearly decade-old UN arms embargo.” These exports also violate the Canadian government’s own Arms Trade Treaty obligations.

            Ploughshares research also revealed that Wescam maintains an authorized service centre for the Turkish weapons company Baykar. Turkey is the third-biggest recipient of Canadian weapons exports (valued at over $152 million). While Ottawa temporarily suspended weapons sales to Turkey in October 2019 after that country’s latest invasion of Syria, Canada announced an extension of the embargo in spring 2020. Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan was furious, and confronted Trudeau about it. Erdogan was especially peeved, since at that time Trudeau had lifted a pause on weapons exports to war crimes being produced by the Saudi regime in Yemen. According to one Turkish official, Trudeau “said they would take some steps to alleviate Turkish concerns regarding the exports; that they would review everything case by case.”

            Middle East Eye reports, “Turkey was giving utmost importance to the import of the optics and surveillance systems from the Canadian firm Wescam for its military drones.” The Turkish regime also relies on Montreal’s Pratt & Whitney for warplane engines.

 

Exemptions for War Crimes

            It did not take long for Global Affairs Canada to grant an exemption for Wescam to continue those weapons exports a month later. Turkey was apparently worried that its capacity to wage drone warfare would be limited given battlefield losses in Syria and Libya. That resumption of weapons sales came just as the group Genocide Watch openly questioned why Turkey was not before the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during its multiple incursions into Syria. They noted that “In areas under Turkey’s control, civilians have been subjected to horrific crimes against humanity committed by Turkish forces and Turkish supported militias. Kurdish towns have been bombed and destroyed, some with white phosphorus, a war crime. Hundreds of civilians have been summarily executed. Kurdish and Yazidi women have been kidnapped and subjected to sexual slavery. Secret prisons hold hundreds of Kurds who are routinely tortured.”

            During those incursions, schools and hospitals were bombed, as were civilian convoys fleeing the violence, and over 180,000 Kurds were forcibly displaced in an act that even U.S. officials named as an act of ethnic cleansing. Similar genocidal attacks against Kurds have been launched by Turkey in northern Iraq, with Ploughshares pointing out, “In 2018, Turkey began the practice of targeted killings in Iraq, becoming only the second country in the region, after Israel, to undertake extraterritorial targeted killings.” When one senior Kurdish leader was assassinated by a Turkish drone in Iraq, footage of the attack was proudly shared on Wescam’s own website, though it was erased after the Canadian window dressing embargo in spring 2020. Wescam’s MX-GCS EO/IR imaging system has also reportedly been integrated into the Belgian-made John Cockerill turret of the Turkish FNSS Kaplan armoured fighting vehicle.

            Meanwhile in Libya, where battling forces have all committed war crimes, Turkey is exporting its own drone technology with Wescam targeting systems, in violation of a decade-old UN arms embargo. Ploughshares shared pictures of downed drones that had been built with  Wescam targeting cameras.

            Turkey also employs Wescam drone technology in ongoing domestic repression and murder by drone against Kurdish people, including reports that in December, 2019, that Turkish drones “participated in airstrikes against Kurdish organizations in at least 11 provinces in southeast Turkey.” The Intercept noted last year as well that Turkish drones (which, notably, rely on Wescam technology) are a “near constant presence in the skies in the country’s southeast. Nearly every day, a Turkish drone, usually a TB2, either fires on a target or provides the location of a target that is subsequently bombed by an F-16 or attack helicopter.” Hundreds of people have been killed in these strikes.

            In 2019, Amnesty International reported that Turkish operations demonstrate “an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civil­ians.” Ploughshares concludes that “there is a clear and demonstrable substantial risk that the further export of Wescam sensors to Turkey could cause harm to civilians and facilitate breaches of IHL [International Humanitarian Law].”

 

What is Our Responsibility?

            What do we do with the knowledge that taxpayer-supported corporations, with the cooperation of Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian Commercial Corporation, are involved in the commission and perpetuation of war crimes and crimes against humanity? After all, as The Nuremberg Principles established at the end of the Second World War, citizens are responsible for acts committed in their name. One set of post-WW2 war crimes trials concerned executives and board members of German armament maker Krupp, which armed the Nazis while using over 100,000 slave labourers.

            Most were convicted and sentenced to modest prison terms, while Alfried Krupp, who was ordered to sell all of his possessions, was unrepentant, crying out in words that may well have been uttered by Stéphane Dion or Chrystia Freeland: “The economy needed a steady or growing development. Because of the rivalries between the many political parties in Germany and the general disorder there was no opportunity for prosperity. ... We thought that Hitler would give us such a healthy environment. Indeed he did do that. ... We Krupps never cared much about [political] ideas. We only wanted a system that worked well and allowed us to work unhindered. Politics is not our business.”

            On International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2002, I was privileged to be among the very first people ever arrested for resisting drone warfare. We had gathered at Wescam’s Burlington factory to conduct a citizen’s weapons inspection as the drums of war with Iraq were heating up. While UN inspectors were at that moment enjoying unfettered (and often unannounced) access to a host of suspected Iraqi weapons production sites (none were found, to the surprise of no one), we were barely 20 feet onto the property before we were met by police who hauled us away and charged us with trespassing.

            When we went to trial the following April (after the horrors of the Bush onslaught of “Shock and Awe”), we attempted to introduce evidence about the crimes Wescam contributed to up to that moment in history. We also sought to testify about the increasing dangers posed by drone warfare and the other technologies of surveillance, border control, and domestic repression that padded the company’s bottom line. These were all reasons why we had gone to Wescam. But neither the judge nor the Crown were interested.

            “These people [military manufacturer Wescam] run a business,” declared Burlington Crown Attorney Tom Davies in response. “I don't know what it is and I don't care what it is." 

When we argued that the court needed to hear about the context of our actions, Justice of the Peace Barry Quinn, in a very political statement, declared: "Politics are not being carried on in this court. This court is not going to be involved in whether there is a war in Iraq. This court will hear about the here and now only."

            Needless to say, the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S., UK, and Canadian forces was well established by that time, and was very much part of the “here and now.”

            Although we went back to Wescam on many occasions (as well as other military manufacturers, war shows, and government bodies enabling these crimes), each time we experienced the same attitude of the Crown prosecutor, who just did not want to know that the heart of his community hosts a manufacturing facility whose products are regularly employed to murder people halfway around the world.

            The same excuses used by the Nazi manufacturers – that they needed to do this blood-stained work for the economy – echo with sickening consistency when uttered by Canadian politicians of all stripes and union representatives who ignore the posters on their walls about international solidarity with the workers on the receiving end of Canadian-made war machinery.

            Just as the pandemic has exposed once more the structural inequality that besets this land, these new reports add one more piece to the argument that Canada’s war economy needs to be dismantled and transformed into peaceful uses. Indeed, as conservatives bemoan the Trudeau government’s relatively modest investments in pandemic supports, few are willing to discuss the annual $31.7 billion outlay for war, the planned $19 billion in fighter bombers, and the $110 billion purchase of new and wholly unnecessary warships. None of this huge investment in killing has defended anyone against threats from climate change and covid-19 or economic inequality. If anything, the massive Canadian commitment to war has contributed to the hollowing out of social safety nets by robbing from the public coffers untold billions that could have ended up in affordable housing, women’s shelters and child care spaces.

This is all publicly available information. We cannot say that “we did not know.” But there is still time to say that, in knowing, we acted, we did something, we refused to be silent.

 

 

 

           

 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Pushing Status for All as Ottawa Ramps up Deportations

 


By Matthew Behrens

            When Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced last week a possible “one-time” pathway to permanent residence for some non-status workers on the frontlines of Covid-19, Ottawa Roma refugee, seamstress, and mother of five, Celina Urbanowicz, was seated at her sewing machine, churning out hand-sewn masks.

            Since the beginning of the pandemic, Urbanowicz has produced for free countless thousands of the masks for hospitals, daycares, and long-term care homes that have never had enough personal protective equipment. The masks became so popular that health care workers earlier this summer took to social media, both trying to ascertain the identity of this secret angel supplying them with colourful and well-fitting masks, and hoping to order more.

            As rallies across the land this past weekend pointed out, Mendicino’s offer, while welcome, did not go far enough. Indeed, Urbanowicz, a 23-year resident of Canada who has lived here without status because of legal errors and other barriers that were the fault of others, will not have the doorway opened to her.  Instead, she is fighting deportation to the virulently right-wing atmosphere in Poland, where Amnesty International has concluded a woman of her profile faces "multiple risks on account of their intersectional vulnerabilities stemming from their identity as a Roma woman, wife of a Muslim man, and as the mother of a lesbian woman.”

            Indeed, the newly re-elected Polish President Andrzej Duda and his right-wing Law and Justice party have stoked a neofascist movement that has led to the declaration of LGBTQ-free zones throughout the country, pulling out of the Istanbul Convention on ending violence against women, and an increase in anti-Roma violence.

            Urbanowicz’s case is not isolated. She is one of hundreds of thousands of non-status people who live in the shadows of this country, subjected to economic exploitation (especially as migrant farm workers) and often denied the safety and services others enjoy. While Canada recently announced plans to welcome up to 390,000 immigrants annually by 2022, it continues to pursue an intensely cruel policy of surveillance, detention, and deportation of a significant population who pay taxes, contribute to their communities, and have built lives here.

 

Status For All

If Canada’s immigration bureaucrats were to work in a logical fashion, they would realize that the first cohort of hundreds of thousands of potential permanent residents are already here and, in many cases, have been for years. Why spend hundreds of millions annually forcing communities to live in fear, trying to break up families via detention and deportation (often over the kinds of minor procedural errors and systemic issues that are rife throughout the system) when they can grant permanent resident status to everyone now? There is zero evidence that any harm would result from such a blanket offer to come from the shadows; if anything, it would prevent the harm that comes with terrorizing and breaking up families and returning them to persecution.

Mendicino’s Covid-themed offer is problematic on a number of other levels. It was couched in the framework of racist Canadian benevolence that fails to acknowledge that humans caring for one another is a universal trait: “And despite the fact that they themselves were very vulnerable, (they) put themselves at a high risk to help others in their community,” he said. “Even though they don’t possess Canadian papers that give them permanent resident status or immigration status, they demonstrated a uniquely Canadian quality by looking out for one other.”  

The idea that those who have lived lives at risk and undergone often difficult, traumatic journeys to get here as refugees should have to undertake additional risk to win the favour of the Immigration Minister speaks to the heartlessness at the core of the system. Indeed, in a statement that makes Mendicino eligible for the Gaslighter of the Year award, he told the Toronto Star: “What makes this group so unique and so special is the adversity that they had overcome just to get here.”  

But everyone who comes here faces that adversity, both in the journey and, all too often, in the struggle to survive here, with only a patchwork of services and advocates available to help them navigate the system. And the fact that only certain “designated” occupations fit this bill is yet another discriminatory measure. Hady Anne, an asylum seeker from Mauritius and member of Solidarité Sans Frontières, told the Toronto Star: “It’s saying there are people who are ‘essential’ and there are others that aren’t,” noting that the measure does not include undocumented residents, agricultural workers, international students and refugees working as janitors and in other jobs in long-term-care facilities.  “It’s a discriminatory measure that brings us backwards in the defence of human rights.”

 

Refugees as Inventory Items

Mendicino’s surface-only benevolence reflects a deeper problem: those who have come to Canada seeking safety and a better life are rarely viewed by government bureaucracies as human beings. Rather, they are inventory items that need to be shuffled from one file to another. This was made pretty clear in the Auditor General’s (AG) July, 2020 investigation of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) which, like the brutal American ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the focus of an excellent Netflix documentary, Immigration Nation), acts as a kind of Gestapo that hunts vulnerable people in an effort to meet deportation quotas.

In 2018/19 fiscal, the CBSA spent $34 million to rip apart families and execute deportations. The AG describes the majority of those found inadmissible to Canada as “failed asylum claimants,” along with a smaller number of visitors who overstay their visas or those with alleged criminality. The latter is a grossly broad term that fails to account for the racial profiling and over-policing of racialized communities that underscores the policing/judicial system. It is also minuscule, 2,800 cases, or less than 1.5% of the total. Those individuals on the list face double punishment, as most have already served either time or probation for their alleged offences.

Meanwhile, CBSA tries to deport individuals within a year of a final negative decision, largely because if individuals manage to stay here longer than 365 days, they may access a pre-removal risk assessment (whose success rate is less than 5%). The CBSA hopes to increase deportations to at least 10,000 annually, and received an additional $36 million, beginning in 2019/20, to keep up with its mandate of misery and reach a hoped for 15,500 annual deportations by 2022.

The AG’s report is written in the cold, actuarial language that removes all humanity, insisting that deportation “protects the integrity and fairness of Canada’s immigration system,” even though the system itself is rife with a lack of integrity and fairness that grows not from those who come here but from racism, institutional bias, incompetence, and repeated failure to uphold both its domestic and international law commitments. CBSA also says removal of refugees is “one of the most effective ways to deter those who might otherwise seek to abuse the system.” In other words, like the Trump administration, the goal is not to make it safe for those at risk, but rather to punish those who, for whatever reason, cannot win their cases. Those reasons often range from an inability to find a translator or competent lawyer, missing a checkbox on an application form, not having a “you have been tortured” certificate from the torturers in the country they fled, biased decision makers at the Immigration and Refugee Board, or submitting a document a day late. They are deemed “failed” asylum seekers when in fact, they simply could not win against a system that too often fails them. 

The AG says there are about 50,000 “enforceable cases” in the CBSA inventory, and bemoans an institutional incompetence that, while perhaps good news for those trying to survive here without fear of being deported, simply extends the period of uncertainty and living in the shadows that mark the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The CBSA is cited for  “poor case management” and failure to complete annual investigations. It is also taken to task for its sloppiness in maintaining a “national removal inventory” (language one would associate with toxic waste, but here it’s meant to describe everyone from women fleeing abusive men and individuals targeted by governments for their ethnic or religious heritage or political affiliation to peasant farmers forced off their land and threatened with death for trying to stop Canadian corporations from building a dangerous mine or megadam in their home community).

 

CBSA’S Poor Data Management

As of April 2019, the CBSA had 197,000 removal orders in its “inventory.” Among them are 132,500 unenforceable removal orders (individuals awaiting word on asylum claims and permanent residence applications) and 14,500 “stayed” cases where deportation is legally prohibited. Under the “enforceable” category, there were 15,300 “working inventory” individuals who CBSA was “required to remove,” and 34,700 where individuals with immigration warrants could not be located. The AG notes the numbers are approximations due to CBSA’s poor “removal data quality.”

One might find that CBSA’s incompetence and inability to find thousands of those who continue seeking safety is a mixed blessing. It means not being immediately returned to dangerous conditions in their homes countries, but it also forces them to continue living in the shadows, where there is more risk of exploitation. CBSA’s inability to work as professionals also has incredibly dangerous consequences. The AG found 3,200 cases in the working inventory that were “actionable, meaning they had no known impediment to advancing to removal. However, because of poor data quality, we found that actionable cases were not reliably identified – some cases were wrongly flagged as actionable, while many more cases were actionable (‘no impediments’ but were not flagged.)” In human terms, what this means is refugees with every right to be here as their case is being determined had been wrongfully labeled as removable, meaning they could be picked up, detained, and possibly deported before anyone realizes the huge error committed. The trauma and potential lethality of such sloppiness is incalculable. The AG found through sampling  that at least 500 cases in the working inventory were not enforceable; those numbers may in fact be far higher. CBSA ultimately does not care whether it removes those with a right to be here because its mandate is to hit its quotas. (Unfortunately, the proroguing of Parliament meant that proposed legislation to introduce oversight of the CBSA was eliminated and must begin anew at a future date).

In the sick evaluation of whether or not such an agency meets its mandate, the AG noted that while the 2018/19 removal year boasted some 9,500 cases, 2,800 had been refused entry at the border, which means “the agency removed 6,700 cases from its working or wanted inventories that fiscal year, making little impact on their levels.” Notably, CBSA confirmed with the AG that “cases in its wanted inventory are generally considered a low risk to public safety and are not an agency priority.” In other words, kids and families who, even though they pose no risk, are nonetheless a juicy target to meet quotas.

 

Trudeau and Trump’s Concentration Camps

Who, exactly, is being turned away by Canada under its various border enforcement mechanisms? Earlier this month, the Federal Court of Canada released a key decision that summarized ten refugee cases while finding that the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the USA violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court said it was clear that Canada is actively turning away individuals seeking asylum here with the full knowledge that those refugees will be immediately detained upon return to the USA, where standards for refugee acceptance continue to decline and conditions for those behind bars are cruel.

Under the agreement, anyone arriving at a land port of entry (POE) from the U.S. cannot make a refugee claim in Canada because of the assumption that the US is “safe” for refugees. Yet, as the Court notes, “claimants arriving from the US by air, by sea or between land POEs, are eligible to have their refugee claims” heard.

Among those who were part of the challenges to the STCA were individuals and families escaping danger in El Salvador, Syria and Ethiopia. Ms Mustefa, for example, was turned away after 30 hours of interrogation in Quebec and immediately jailed for a month, with the first week in solitary confinement.

Mustefa described solitary as a “terrifying, isolating and psychologically traumatic experience,” and, as a Muslim, reports she was served pork even though she informed guards she could not eat it.  As a result, she lost 15 pounds by skipping meals.

A Syrian family who tried to walk across the border at the Roxham Road opening in the New York/Quebec border were told by the CBSA they would be arrested if they tried to enter. When they turned back to New York, they were thrown into separate police cars, questioned, photographed and fingerprinted, with the mother forced to remove her hijab. (They were thankfully able to eventually get temporary resident permits and have since become permanent residents.)

While Canada has disingenuously argued that it has no control over what happens to those it deports or kicks back to the US, the Court found that “CBSA officials are involved in the physical handing over of claimants to US officials. This conduct does not make Canada a ‘passive participant’ and it provides a ‘sufficient connection’ to the offending conduct. I conclude that the actions of Canadian officials in returning ineligible STCA claimants to US officials facilitates a process that results in detention.”

 

Physical and Psychological Suffering

The Court notes that “the accounts of detainees demonstrate both physical and psychological suffering because of detention, and a real risk that they will not be able to assert asylum claims.” The conditions they are forced to ensure are brutal, with the court  finding “all describe the detention centres as abnormally cold. J.K. describes being unable to sleep due to the cold; P.Q. describes asking for extra blankets, but not receiving any until she had a fever and needed to see a doctor, and R.S. stated that when prisoners would huddle together for warmth, the guards would pull the blankets off them. J.K. states that she denied requiring medical attention to avoid being handcuffed. R.S. describes the medical care in her detention facility as being inadequate. R.S. observed the nurse in her detention facility ignore black detainees while going out of her way to address medical issues of white detainees. She states that the nurse would ‘ignore us and simply not address our concerns’.”

The Court’s bottom line was clear: “The evidence establishes that the conduct of Canadian officials in applying the provisions of the STCA will provoke certain, and known, reactions by US officials. In my view, the risk of detention for the sake of ‘administrative’ compliance with the provisions of the STCA cannot be justified. Canada cannot turn a blind eye to the consequences that befell Ms. Mustefa in its efforts to adhere to the STCA. The evidence clearly demonstrates that those returned to the US by Canadian officials are detained as a penalty.”

Such brutal conditions are wholly consistent with those documented in report after report, including Human Rights Watch’s In The Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells, as well as the excellent Netflix series Immigration Nation, which follows the plight of many of those detained, those organizing against the American concentration camps, and the casual cruelty of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers who, like their CBSA counterparts, think only in terms of numbers processing and bottom lines.

All of this is publicly available evidence, and yet Canada continues to behave as if the US is a safe destination for refugees. Canadian officials are aware of the fact that, for Salvadorans, being sent back to the US and eventual deportation back home often results in death. Indeed, more than 70 people deported from the US to that country under the Obama administration from 2012-15 were murdered upon their return, numbers that increased under Trump with deteriorating conditions in that Central American country.

While the Federal Court gave Ottawa a six-month period to bring its policies in line with the constitution and the law, the Trudeau Liberals have chosen in favour of the Trump concentration camp system of family separation and racist border walls, deciding last week to appeal the Court decision. In an August 21 statement, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair made himself eligible for the Cognitive Dissonance Award of 2020 by declaring the appeal was being conducted because “Canada remains firmly committed to upholding a compassionate, fair and orderly refugee protection system.”

Whether that commitment will extend to Roma refugee Celina Urbanowicz remains to be seen. She spent a few hours last week dropping off face masks to grateful nurses at Riverside Hospital in Ottawa. As she returned home to continue her one-woman production line, her daughters and supporters continue campaigning to have her accepted as a permanent resident to Canada and to cancel the deportation to Poland. This week, they launched a 23-day chain fast, each day marking one year that she and her family have lived here without status. They are also promoting a petition that has garnered over 7,000 signatures.  

The fact that refugees must risk their lives in a Covid-infected facility or seek the help of advocates to generate petitions, publicity, demonstrations, and chain fasts simply to win their basic right to be safe speaks not to a refugee problem, but to a systemic problem with Canada’s immigration system. As government officials continue to dismiss their legal obligations to asylum seekers, it falls to the rest of us to engage in this work to ensure an end to the cruel warehousing, hunting, and deportation of those who came here because their backs were against the wall in their home countries. Lives hang in the balance, and all of us have choices to make.