1.5 Session on “Negotiating Borders Justly: Immigration and Human Rights”

Bernard Alphonsus, Emily Gilbert, Ronald Poulton

In the news with increasing frequency, we see immigration issues profiled—from open borders with fast-track permanent residency status for certain kinds of skilled workers to closed borders for certain applicants from poorer countries or refugee claimants or unhealthy family members of immigrants. What kinds of human rights claims can be made at the borders? Does Immigration Canada have an inherent right to preserve the "social order" in certain ways, granting access to some groups or kinds of people but keeping others out? How significant should human rights claims be at the borders? Is there a "common good" that joins insiders and outsiders, yet also makes for a just social order?

Emily Gilbert, Director of the Canadian Studies Program at the University of Toronto, opened the panel with an overview of key issues on human rights and borders, particularly with border security and mobility/immigration issues. Globalization has opened borders for goods and capital, but, in particular since 9/11, borders have been increasingly closed for humans; this is the paradox we face. Border security has been a major issue between the U.S. and Canada, with U.S. media and some politicians arguing that Canada’s immigration policies are “too lax,” possibly allowing terrorists into Canada and from there to the United States. Accusations that those responsible for the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers came through Canada have been shown to be false, but border security has been strengthened none-the-less, with drones now patrolling sections of the Canada-U.S. border and increased collaboration on security and military at the border. Furthermore, there have been immigration programs into Canada that have an expedited process for those with money, while less refuges are allowed, with more constraints around how refugees are allowed to come. This leaves the most vulnerable even more vulnerable and Gilbert noted that some of these actions are quite possibly in contravention of conventions on refugees. She spoke to the need for refugee claims and immigration applications to be handled in a fair and timely fashion that respected the rights of the applicants.

The second speaker was Bernard Alphonsus, a refugee from Sri Lanka who currently works on social justice and pastoral counseling of refugees. He built on similar themes to Emily Gilbert’s, telling the stories of several refugee claimants who arrived on boats and were arrested on arrival in Canada, under suspicion of being terrorists, “line jumping” in immigration cases, and being a “threat to national security.” The treatment they received was traumatic and dehumanizing. Speaking about the danger of treating refugees as criminals as well as the danger of rejecting refugee’s claims and sending them back to countries where they will be in danger, Alphonsus argued that justice and human rights must be pursued and respected, no matter whether a person is a citizen in the country in which they are, or a refugee. Human rights exist—Alphonsus mentioned in particular a right to mental health—and do not cease to be in effect when crossing borders, even as a refugee or displaced person.

Ronald Poulton, a lawyer practicing immigration law and working with social justice and human rights internationally, was the third speaker and continued the themes spoken on by the first two presenters. He discussed the legal issues surrounding refugee claims and those who would normally be deported due to crimes committed, but who face probable torture if they are returned. Poulton asks what makes a border open and close—what are the circumstances that dictate responses to refugee claims and immigration? He spoke about how at first, compassion dictates that people receive refugees, but then “compassion fatigue” can set in, and good will deteriorates. It is then that the language of “bogus refugee claims” and “line jumpers” and “liars” begins. At this point, human rights laws are the safety net that must be there already in place. Poulton notes that this “liar” language is picked up by the media and government and used to tighten immigration control and further erode compassion as well as being used as a tool to try to attack human rights claims. This is why rights language and legal rights, not just a dependence on compassion, are so important when it comes to dealing with people who are in very vulnerable situations.

At this point the floor was opened for questions. One audience member raised the question of whether security shouldn’t in fact be more beefed up, and that those who aren’t criminals will be able to go about their lives without problems, feeling safer with the increased security. Gilbert responded by questioning this “I don’t have anything to hide” attitude, however. She noted that even those who are not criminals, who don’t have anything to “hide” in that sense can still be profiled in highly problematic ways, with consequences that can affect their ability to move across borders. She insisted that we cannot relinquish human rights in the name of security because the consequences of doing so are too severe, can lead to an Authority State, and don’t typically end up safer either. The question was also raised about what to do about refugees who have no ability or means to get to safe countries like Canada. Where there is incredible mass suffering—fleeing genocide, for example—how do we deal with it? The presenters agreed that there are different kinds of refugee claims—those who may have a great deal of means but have been forced to run for political reasons of dissent, and those who have no means and are running from violence, for example. Right now there is no quick answer to knowing how to respond when large numbers of people without present means are displaced, though rights workers and advocates are working on it.

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