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Left to live in limbo

by Archives November 16, 2005

Hundreds of people flee their own dangerous countries every year to seek solace and protection in Canada. The Canadian government recognizes the dangerous situations in some countries, whether due to natural disaster or social unrest, and has suspended removals to those locations it deems unsafe.

Catherine Balfour of the Montreal branch of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) says it “hasn’t been a very open process.. the way the government has handled it.” Balfour said information on countries with suspended removals is very difficult to attain. People contact CCR to find out which countries are on the list because they are unable to find the information otherwise. “It’s not available publicly anywhere,” Balfour said.

Countries with suspended removals are called moratoria countries and, according to the CCR, they currently include: Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Liberia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. Individuals who come to Canada from these countries will not be turned away. They will not, however, be afforded the same basic freedoms as Canadians.

Many individuals from moratoria countries are not granted refugee status because they do not face a personalized risk. Because there is a generalized risk to all civilians in their country they are allowed to stay in Canada, but not as refugees. Applications for permanent resident status are generally refused for these people as well.

Without any clear status, these individuals are left with limited work opportunities and often insurmountable obstacles in the pursuit of education. They are ineligible for federal child tax benefits and have access only to emergency health care services. A person from a moratoria country may live in Canada in this state of limbo for years, sometimes decades.

“The consequences of that are very damaging,” said Balfour.

The Canadian government has received requests to change the moratorium policy to allow individuals to attain permanent resident status after three years in Canada. The government’s response was that the issue was not of sufficient importance for immediate action.

“These are people who have been put in the back cupboard and forgotten about,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the CCR Montreal branch. “The government says they are not a high enough priority to do something about it.”

While the issue may be easily overlooked, thousands of people living in Canada are being denied the opportunity to develop and grow.

“The Canadian government,” Balfour said, “[should] recognize that that’s not a healthy situation; neither for the people themselves, nor for Canadian society.”

Another specification of the suspended removal is that individuals from moratoria countries cannot travel outside Canada. Without permanent resident status they are also unable to sponsor family members to join them here. Travel restrictions keeping them within Canadian borders make it impossible to reunite with family elsewhere.

“I have no future and no plans.” said one 48-year-old Zimbabwean. “The two options are either going home and being killed, or staying here and being away from my children.”

A person living in Canada in this imposed state of limbo is left with few signs of hope. Many are trained professionals in their own countries, but are unable to work in their specific fields once they arrive in Canada. Students who are partway through their studies face costly international fees if they choose to complete their degrees at a Canadian university. They are also ineligible for grants and bursaries offered to Canadian students. Most do not have the financial means to continue their education.

A single Congolese mother of four described her difficulties sending her daughter to school.

“We had paid $135 for a study permit which they issued for two years to my daughter. The college was $3,900 per session. She was dreaming of becoming a doctor but she said to me; ‘No, Mum, you are not going to two or three jobs to pay for my studies. I’m dropping out,'” she said.

Although the situation in Canada is unfortunate, many people from moratoria countries know the reality in their homeland is far worse. They accept menial labour jobs and fewer rights out of desperation.

By refusing to grant these individuals the permanent resident status they need to move ahead, Dench said, the government is delaying their integration into society and impeding them from making any significant progress.

“We are wasting these people’s lives by delaying their full participation and contribution to [Canadian society],” she said.

The Government does not generally deport people who have lived in Canada for many years if they have established firm roots in this country. When a moratorium is lifted, it is likely most people from that country who applied will be granted permanent resident status.

According to a CCR report, a lift of the moratorium on removals to Algeria in 2002 resulted in 93 per cent of applicants being accepted for permanent status. Many Canadians agreed it did not make sense to deport so many people who had lived in Canada for years and had set up a life for themselves in this country. If the outcome is likely to be similar with other moratoria countries, the question raised is: Why not allow these people full rights sooner?

The CCR is working with groups from moratoria countries on a campaign to bring the issue to the attention of the general public as well as policy makers in Ottawa.

CCR is circulating a petition along with a pamphlet describing the situation, possible solutions, and some of the affects on the people who are directly involved. “We will be going to meet with members of Parliament,” Balfour said, “to talk to them about this situation.”

Canada is renowned for being a land of freedom and acceptance. Some feel the current option offered to those fleeing danger in their native countries is not in keeping with this Canadian image.

“Everyone says in Canada there is no difference between people,” said one Iraqi who has been in Canada for six years, “but I feel different; my SIN starts with a nine.”

A nine at the beginning of a Social Insurance Number indicates the holder does not have permanent status in Canada.

Canadian society may stand to gain from the enrichment of culture and special skills newcomers have to offer. By acknowledging their basic human rights, the Canadian government could open new channels of communication with people from moratoria countries that would add to the progression of society as a whole.

“If [the government] is going to give people the right to be able to stay here,” Balfour said, “then they need to have some kind of way, in the long-term, to give them some kind of status to stay in Canada.”

While the moratorium policy is well-intentioned, some feel an amendment of its structure will be the only way for Canada, to justifiably come across as the “true north strong and free”.

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