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 youre 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 dont 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
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, theyve pushed Canadas borders way out to
the point of conflict, Nash said. These are ways of thinking
creatively about where Canadas 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 dont like seeing this happening, Nash said. Refugee
critics would claim its just an opportunity to whittle down the
rights of refugees to a full hearing.