Now that the presents are unwrapped and the tryptophan is wearing off, it is fitting to reflect on the events that unfolded after the Nativity. As if giving birth in a barn wasn’t rough enough, Mary and Joseph soon faced a death threat against their son at the bidding of a sociopathic king. Upon divine counsel, they sought asylum in Egypt. God became a refugee.
We do not know what kind of reception Mary and Joseph had in Egypt. But one wonders if they’d have been accepted under the current practices of Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). This year, CIC’s running slogan could have been “beware the rogue refugees.” It is an approach to migration that has greatly emphasized “illegal” migrants who “abuse” Canada’s “generosity”. While it’s important to maintain the integrity of our immigration system, we must not increase hostility to people who have been forced to flee.
The arrival of the Tamils aboard the MV Sun Sea last year served as a catalyst for a shift in immigration policy and attitudes, generating rhetoric about “queue jumpers” and “bogus refugees” in Canada. This fall the government re-tabled Bill C-4 (formerly Bill C-49), the “Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act.” As its title denotes, the bill is meant to target human smugglers. But as the Canadian Council of Refugees and many others have pointed out, the bill punishes refugees instead.
The latest government initiative is an undertaking to crack down on illegal immigrants already living in Canada.
Criminality has always factored into border controls, and rightly so – national security is a legitimate concern. However, as sociologist and professor of criminology, Anna Pratt, suggests, security has now become “the guiding rationale for exclusionary immigration law and policy” in an historically unprecedented way.
A system that looks for the criminal first and needy newcomer second is especially challenging for refugees, as it is a group prone to exploitation by illegal immigrants. In search of the delinquent minority, Pratt argues that Ottawa’s approach casts a cloud of suspicion on the innocent majority of refugees to Canada and downplays their vulnerability and need for protection.
An Unjust Perspective Shapes Unjust Action
An immigration system that views all refugees as a potential risk to society is problematic not only because it labels an entire group as untrustworthy, but because of what it ultimately leads to: an inhospitable culture.
Overly stringent measures are one symptom of such a culture. Currently in Canada, low-risk refugees with unverified identities, including children, are held in mid-security prisons or prison-like detention centres. The refugees in these centres report that they are hand-cuffed and even shackled at the ankles when they need to visit the hospital. Such demeaning treatment of people can only be borne of irrational fear.
Concern over keeping the wrong people out can also translate into unreasonable expectations for those deserving asylum. For example, Bill C-4 would penalize refugees for using human smugglers to get to Canada. The bill fails to acknowledge that life circumstances do not always allow refugees the option of “following the rules” established by Canadian officials.
Chasing after the small minority that abuses the system (of which an even more miniscule minority might actually pose some sort of harm to our society) should not come at the expense of compassion to those who are truly in need.
Compassion for the Foreigner
The Bible calls for great compassion and care to be the guiding principle in our interactions with the foreigner. In Leviticus 19:33-34 God commands: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
It’s easy to assume that as Canadian citizens, we somehow deserve the life and all its benefits here in Canada. To forget that unless we descend from the First Peoples of Canada, our ancestors were all once foreigners at the mercy of another people. We could use a little humility when the outsider comes to knock on our door.
As we prepare to ring in the New Year, let’s remember the true definition of a refugee: one who is escaping persecution and in need of protection. Let’s also remember that Canada holds a reputation for being a hospitable nation. As we remember that God too was a refugee, and that His divine mark is on all who seek safety in our nation, let’s toast again to compassion.