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October 24, 2002 Controversial immigration policy debated at SCPA



by James Stairs

Canada’s commitment to a controversial immigration policy was up for discussion last week as three panelists presented their views on the concept of the “safe third country.” About 60 people attended the panel discussion, organized by students as part of their course work in Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs (SCPA).

The safe third country principle denies refuge to any person who has previously applied for asylum in another country deemed safe by the nation evaluating the claim.

Proponents of the plan argue that it helps prevent “asylum shopping,” while critics suggest that it is a tactic to filter out potential immigrants.

Canada and the United States recently agreed to jointly enforce the safe third country principles.
James Bissett, former head of Immigration Services Canada began the debate with a passionate defence of the safe third country concept.

“Our [immigration] policy is way out of kilter,” he said. “We have become an incredibly soft target for illegitimate asylum seekers.”

Bissett explained how Canada, in the 1980s, was flooded with citizens from other countries who realized that the country’s system of evaluating refugees was both easy to sidestep and ineffectual in “weeding out obviously frivolous claims.”

The evaluation process, he claimed, is expensive, inefficient and easily manipulated by people who do not have justification to claim refugee status. The non-adversarial nature of the refugee hearings, he argued, makes it too easy for claimants to circumvent the system.

“We must save our resources for the people who are genuinely in need,” he told the increasingly skeptical audience. “I’ve been to refugee camps, and we should be helping those people.”

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees, received a decidedly warmer welcome from the audience as she offered her responses. “My organization is opposed to Safe Third,” she said. “It is an agreement that harms refugees.”

Dench presented numerous arguments against the implementation of the policy, joking that she needed to, because “it seems the rationale [in support of the agreement] is always changing.”

Refugees often have legitimate reasons to claim asylum in a third country she said. For example, they may cite language, the proximity of family members and the inability to find employment. Implementation of the safe third country agreement would deny these claims.

Dench argued that Canada should also resist the implication “that refugees should not ask for too much, that they are morally obligated to ask for the minimum.”

Refusing applicants from the United States is problematic. “There are areas of [American immigration policy] that do not meet international standards.” Dench was referring specifically to the detention of refugee claimants as waiting for a hearing.

The argument that the policy contributes to homeland security is also inconsistent, she said. “Once people realize that they can’t get in at the border [by claiming refugee status], they’ll just sneak in.” Human smuggling will become an even bigger problem as a result of the agreement.

Dench said that one of the biggest dangers the safe third country agreement poses is that it fosters a climate where “the moral legitimacy of refugees is put into doubt and we create an environment that doesn’t give people a dignified way of claiming. Refugees become associated with words like illegal, illegitimate and terrorist.”

Yaya Yao, an activist from Montreal, representing the No One Is Illegal advocacy group, also expressed her opposition to the safe third country agreement.

Yao suggested that the policy is nothing more than a “racist reaction to September 11,” and that “the rhetoric of safety and security” used by supporters of the idea is really a ploy by the government to hide its real intention of controlling refugee claims more closely.

After the debate and an often raucous question period which had Bissett repeatedly defending his support of the policy, observers seemed split regarding the level of debate the panelists presented.

SCPA student Alexis Deschenes said, “The discussion showed the two extremes [that mark] the issue. It really offered some food for thought.”