Reflecting on Refugee Rights on World Refugee Day

Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world but are treated in different ways in receiving countries. World Refugee Day is marked internationally on June 20 annually. This is an occasion to educate the public about refugee issues and to mobilize political will and resources to address problems and celebrate achievements thus far.

Lest we forget, the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol contain several rights and obligations towards refugees from their host countries. Refugees have rights not to be expelled (non-refoulement) or to be punished for irregular entry into a country. They have rights to work, to have access to adequate housing, and to receive an education, and public assistance. Refugees also have rights to freedom of religion, to access to the courts, to freedom of movement and the right to be issued identity and travel documents.

Canada’s historic leadership on refugees

This year in Canada, the globally acclaimed Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program celebrated its 40th anniversary. The program got off to a dramatic start in 1979 when Canadians responded in massive numbers to South-East Asian refugees. 35,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians were privately sponsored. The most recent count of Syrian refugees admitted into Canada since the 2015 election stands at 58,650. The program has allowed Canadians to offer protection and a new home to more than 300,000 refugees since its inception. This year, Canada also celebrated the 34th anniversary of the 1985 Singh Decision, in which the Supreme Court of Canada decided that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should apply to “everyone” physically present in Canada, including foreign refugee claimants. It gave refugees a right to a full oral hearing of their claims, before being either accepted into the country or deported.

Reclaiming refugee protection in Canada and beyond

However, in this same year, refugee rights have suffered some reversals. For instance, tucked away in this years budget bill was the introduction of a new ground of ineligibility for refugee claimants who have previously made a refugee claim in another country. The bill is still being studied by parliamentary committees, but if approved it will be a very big blow to refugee rights. It is clearly aimed at people whose refugee claims have been rejected in the United States and who then try to apply again in Canada. It is an attempt to stem the flow of refugee claimants who have had to use unofficial border crossings from the United States to Canada. The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) still presumes that the United States is safe for all refugees, am inaccurate assumption considering the current anti-immigration administration in the United States.

As CPJ has stated in earlier statements, the failure of the United States to fully comply with many refugee obligations calls the legitimacy of the STCA into question. CPJ concurs with other stakeholders in maintaining that such substantial changes to immigration laws must be given a full hearing in Parliament, rather than being concealed in a fast-tracked omnibus budget bill. This is an affront on refugee rights that is bound to have far-reaching effects.

Travel loans burden refugees

Another issue in Canada’s current system is that resettled refugees must pay for their medical exam and travel expenses to come to Canada. As a result, refugees often start their new lives in Canada with debt. In CPJ’s 2017 report, A Half Welcome and our recent  Waive Repayment campaign, CPJ recommended that the government move to totally waive the loan repayment requirement for all refugees to ensure that the program treats all refugees fairly.​ In the same report, Sponsorship Agreement Holders complained about the long wait times that delay sponsorship applications from some less favored regions. CPJ recommends that the processing of backlogged applications from global visa posts, particularly Africa, should be the government’s priority.

Language matters in the refugee debate

The language politicians, policymakers and journalists use while referring to refugees is very important in influencing public opinion. Refugee claimants have been labeled as “queue jumpers,” “asylum shoppers,” “illegal immigrants,” “economic migrants,” and “illegal border crossers.” Using the word “illegal” to describe refugees serves to paint a vulnerable population with an element of criminality. Refugees should instead be called “irregular immigrants” or “irregular border crossers.” CPJ has addressed this issue variously in a number of articles, letters, and official statements, including in Words do Matter in the Refugee Debate and Irregular vs. Illegal – Why Language Matters. This issue of how or what we call refugees or asylum seekers is particularly important in this election year and amid an upsurge in populism and anti-refugee misinformation.

Canada should address social exclusion for refugees

Finally, while Canada is a melting pot of multiculturalism and a world leader in refugee intake, it does not have effective socio-economic integration policies for newcomers. Refugees encounter social exclusion in all spheres of life including employment, housing, education, health and participation in the political arena. The credentials of educated refugees are often not recognized by Canadian employers and many of them are not able to practice in their professions. Racism and discrimination also affect the economic integration of refugees in Canada. It appears employers value education from (white) European countries more than education from (black/brown) African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American ones. Oftentimes, professionals from these countries end up doing menial jobs that are way below their qualifications. The social exclusion of refugees from the mainstream results in poverty, poor housing, feelings of insecurity, mental health and other negative health outcomes, to mention but a few. These problems do not only affect newcomers, but they tend to have a multiplier effect on all Canadians.

As we celebrate this World Refugee Day, Canada should continue to uphold refugee rights,  and enact strong social inclusion policies for the good of all people physically present in Canada, particularly as the number of displaced people around the world continues to grow.


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