Catherine Dauvergne says fears that Canada’s refugee system is a back door for terrorists are grossly exaggerated.
The UBC law professor, a Canada Research Chair in Migration Law, recently completed the most comprehensive investigation of how terrorism laws introduced following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have impacted Canada’s refugee system.
Based on 11 years of national refugee decisions (1998-2008), the findings suggest that Canada is anything but “soft on terrorism,” as some media and politicians have recently claimed, Dauvergne says.
“Canada, like most Western countries, has not yet struck an acceptable balance between security and asylum,” says Dauvergne. She says Canada is putting the lives of legitimate refugees in danger and is at risk of breaking international human rights laws out of unfounded fears of terrorism.
According to Dauvergne, Canada’s definition of terrorism has ranked among the broadest in the world since 9/11, making Canada among the hardest countries in the West for refugees to enter. Her study found that Canadian courts rejected refugee claimants for police or military service in another nation, living in the same geographic area as terrorist organizations or simply attending one political rally, for example.
“Our definition of terrorism has expanded to the point that many of the refugees we refuse for terrorism concerns have never participated in violence, political crimes or terrorist organizations, says Dauvergne, who investigated nearly 800 refugee cases.
Despite this wider net, the study finds that refugee exclusions from Canada remain relatively rare. Of the approximately 2,500 annual refugee claims, the average number of refugees barred entry to Canada has increased from 50 claimants before 2001 to less than 90.
Dauvergne says the modest numbers fly in the face of claims that Canada’s refugee system is at high risk for terrorism. “Every time a boat of refugees arrives, there seems to be this popular notion that Canada’s refugee system is a haven for terrorists,” she says. “Our findings suggest there is no evidence to support that claim.”
“Our laws make it easier than ever to exclude people for terrorism concerns, but the numbers show our broadened criteria simply do not apply to the overwhelming majority of refugees seeking asylum in Canada,” says Dauvergne, who conducted the study with PhD candidate Asha Kaushal.
However, while the rise in rejections may seem modest, Dauvergne says there are human lives at stake. She says the findings suggest Canada is failing in its responsibilities – outlined by international refugee law and international human rights law – to protect refugees who face persecution ?in their former countries.
“When we send refugees back home, ?we put them at great risk for persecution, imprisonment and even death,” she says, noting that an estimated several hundred of people have died in the past year while seeking asylum in countries and around the world.
“As a society committed to human rights and social justice, it is important that we get this balance between ?security and asylum right,” says Dauvergne, who characterizes her findings as call for “a renewed discussion for thoughtful standards about who may be considered a terrorist, for what acts, and in what circumstances.”
Dauvergne says refugee claimants face greater scrutiny – before and after acceptance – than people in most other immigration categories, including student visas and work permits. They also consent to have their actions monitored by government agencies for the duration of what can be a very long claim period.
The countries with the most refugee claimants barred from Canada during the data period include China (51), followed by Colombia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Peru and Cuba.