With 150 million people moving across national borders worldwide, industrialized countries are creating growing access barriers for refugees seeking protection, famed Canadian activist Jaggi Singh said during a panel discussion held on Nov. 8 at Concordia.
“You can’t define human beings as illegal, as exploitable [or] as non-status,” said Singh, a member of the “No One Is Illegal” campaign that works together with the Action Committee of Non-Status Algerians. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, he said.
These so-called humanitarian countries that are putting up barriers are the same ones that take credit for welcoming the few refugees they accept each year, said Singh. However, 70 per cent of refugees find shelter in other third world countries, he added.
The talk, entitled “The Algerian Gap: Building Solidarity between Immigrants, Refugees & Student Movements,” informed the roughly 20 students and guests who attended about the plight of refugees seeking asylum in Canada. It also publicized the march for solidarity with non-status Algerians that took place on Nov. 9.
According to Singh, the imminent deportation of nearly 1,000 non-status Algerians from Canada, most of which live in Montreal, is the result of a system of global apartheid that limits the ability of refugees to enter the country and remain here.
“You have to prove that there is a gun to your head or there will be a gun to your head,” in order to be allowed to stay, he said.
The introduction of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, scheduled to be passed in Jan. 2003, will further restrict the number of refugees accepted in Canada, said Singh.
The new legislation will also introduce stiffer fines for “trafficking in humans,” which is punishable by a $1 million fine, life in prison, or both, according to a document released by the office of Federal Revenue Minister Elinor Caplan. Caplan also acts as head of the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency.
Since 1997, all Algerians in Canada have been protected from deportation by a moratorium on expulsions due to the civil war ravaging Algeria. Last April, when the decade-long conflict that claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people ended, Immigration Minister Denis Coderre lifted the ban on deportations.
At the same time deportations were being scheduled, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs warned Canadians against travel to Algeria due to the ongoing violence there.
Despite this fact, 30 non-status Algerians have already been sent back. A thousand face expulsion. On Nov. 4, Coderre granted a 90-day suspension on all scheduled deportations to Algeria after an Algerian family and their two-year-old son defied a deportation order and took sanctuary in the Union United Church in Montreal.
During this three-month period, non-status Algerians whose refugee claims were refused can apply for landed-immigrant status on humanitarian grounds. But Singh says the problem has merely been passed onto the court of immigration, where a lack of standard procedure among judges can make it more difficult to gain entry.
Among other requirements, claimants must speak French and have a professional skill set. But Soumya Boussouf, a member of the Action Committee of Non-Status Algerians, told The Gazette that “it’s a question of protection, not immigration.”
The majority of non-status Algerians have been living in Canada under constant stress for an average of four years, said CSU Executive Sameer Zuberi, who also participated in the panel. Each year they must to apply for a $150 work permit with no guarantee one will be granted.
If they do obtain a permit, the first digits of their social insurance number are designed to signal to employers that they are non-status residents. In addition, the system prevents them from going to school and “their skills are not reflected in the jobs they have,” Singh said, and encouraged the crowd to think about who pumps gas, picks fruit and drives cabs.
The major problem with the immigration system is that it assigns unqualified people to assess the situation in a given country, said Singh, who argued its representatives are often ignorant of the reality of other people and places.
He recounted a recent conversation with a member of immigration minister Denis Coderre’s office who said he was in Algeria just last week and saw no problems: according to Singh, he stayed at the Hilton hotel and took a cab to go buy a razor. That was apparently all he saw of Algeria, Singh said.