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January 24, 2002 Developing countries are ducking responsibility for refugees



Alan Nash

Countries are redefining their territory: Geography Professor Alan Nash

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Frank Kuin

Western governments are increasingly resorting to the use of geographical barriers to circumvent international obligations on how they deal with refugees, says Alan Nash, a geography professor at Concordia.

By physically trying to prevent refugees from landing on their soil, rich countries, including Canada, strive to avoid the lengthy legal procedures to which every arriving refugee claimant is entitled under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, Nash concluded in a recent research paper.

“Geography can be [more effective] than the law if you’re trying to keep people out,” said Nash, a geographer by training who has studied immigration issues since he worked at an Ottawa think-tank in the late 1980s.

He cited several “means and dodges” by which countries try to duck their convention responsibilities, including redefinition of parts of their territory, interception of refugees at the high seas, and the imposition of visa requirements which are often practically impossible to fulfill for migrants in distant countries.

“What I have seen happening over the last 10 to 15 years is that Western governments are realizing that if you prevent people ever getting into your country, they don’t trigger any of the protections or legal requirements,” he said.

Procedures can be lengthy

Under the UN Convention, every migrant who appears in one of the signatory nations and claims to be persecuted at home has a right to a full refugee determination hearing. With appeals taken into account, such procedures can take several years. During that time, claimants must be accommodated in the host country.

“Governments are trying to exert greater and greater control on [what is perceived as] an uncontrollable flow of refugees,” Nash said. “The legal apparatus is very hard to use, so in some ways I think the geography of the situation is being used quite cleverly by planners and bureaucrats.”

For instance, Nash said, France has declared its international airports not part of the country, so that it can prevent refugees from filing a claim upon arrival, and can send them right back to where they came from.

“Geographers would see this as playing around with definitions of the country, of space and territory,” he said.

The United States routinely turns back ships on the high seas bound for North America to prevent people from reaching American soil, Nash said. Similarly, Australia tends to refuse to let refugee ships land.

Canada has focused on overseas visa requirements as a means to control the arrival of refugee claimants, Nash said. Specifically, air passengers to Canada coming from most non-Western countries need a Canadian visa before they can board a plane.

Indeed, such requirements have been tightened in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the United States of Sept. 11, when Canada was accused of being an easy prey for bogus refugees. In addition, airlines are fined if they transport people without documents, further reducing the chances of refugees actually reaching Canadian airports.

“In a sense, they’ve pushed Canada’s borders way out to the point of conflict,” Nash said. “These are ways of thinking creatively about where Canada’s borders are.”

In many cases, visas to Canada are made physically difficult to obtain, Nash added. For instance, in the whole of Eastern Africa, only the Canadian mission in Nairobi issues such visas, making them practically impossible to get for refugees from, for instance, Somalia or Sudan.

“I don’t like seeing this happening,” Nash said. “Refugee critics would claim it’s just an opportunity to whittle down the rights of refugees to a full hearing.”