COMMENTARY || Canada is turning its back on Central American refugees
By adhering to the Safe Third Country Agreement, the Canadian government is willfully ignoring the plight of refugee families being separated, argues historian.
By JAYMIE HEILMAN
Today, on World Refugee Day, Canadians might see yet another news story about the traumas of young Central American girls and boys being separated from their asylum-seeking parents by U.S. immigration officials. As the American Civil Liberties Union recently reported, children who flee to the U.S. unaccompanied are also being brutally mistreated: child immigrants in U.S. custody are held in freezing cold facilities without adequate food, water or medical care. Some are even suffering sexual assault and physical violence at the hands of U.S. officials.
Canadians may look on in horror, but we would be remiss to think the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Central American refugee children and their parents is strictly an American immigration issue. The Canadian government is actively failing and willfully ignoring these Central American refugee kids.
When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the separation policy, he commented, “if you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Central American parents are not, however, trying to “smuggle” their children—they are trying to save them. Central America’s 294,000 refugees are fleeing grinding poverty. They are also escaping from gangs that recruit young boys against their will, force girls into sexual slavery and prostitution, extort money from businesses, and kidnap and murder on a mind-boggling scale.
In 2017, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world. Honduras and Guatemala are not far behind, and the governments of these three Central American nations seem to be unable to protect their citizens. Indeed, many Central Americans fear indiscriminate state-sponsored killings even more than they fear the gangs. And as they make their way to the U.S. border, many of these vulnerable refugees face further violence and sexual abuse from gangs, drug traffickers, or Mexican soldiers and police.
Canada could help, but instead, our government is looking away.
Canada adheres to the Safe Third Country agreement, which requires asylum seekers to make their requests for protection in the first “safe country” they set foot in. The overwhelming majority of Central American refugees have no way to get to Canada without first entering the United States, making it almost impossible for them to make a refugee claim in Canada.
It is unclear how Canada can continue to characterize the United States as “safe” for these refugees, given the conditions in detention centres. The U.S. President recently said that deported Central Americans “are not people. They’re animals.” Worse still, Jeff Sessions recently ruled that domestic and gang violence are no longer grounds for asylum. For Central American women, fleeing a region with devastating rates of femicide, safety will be tragically elusive.
And how can the Canadian government deem the United States safe for refugees, when the U.S. is violating those refugees’ rights under international law? As Erika Guevara-Ross, Amnesty International’s Americas director, stated, “Prying infant children from their parents’ arms as they seek asylum is a flagrant violation of their human rights. Doing so in order to push asylum seekers back into dangerous situations where they may face persecution is also a violation of U.S. obligations under refugee law.”
Canada’s failing of Central American kids and their parents goes beyond the Safe Third Country Agreement. Last year, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) explicitly asked the Canadian government to help Central American refugees, and our government responded with a paltry amount of money. The UNHCR sought $37 million from the Canadian government to provide legal aid to unaccompanied Central American children detained in Mexico, to keep shelters open for kids in Honduras and to support Guatemala’s first safe space for LGBTQ2 persons. By the end of 2017, our government had given less than 20 per cent of the money requested.
Canada has helped Central American refugees before. It can and must help them again. During the 1980s, when U.S.-sponsored Cold War counterinsurgencies devastated Central American countries, Canada took action. The Canadian government allowed undocumented Salvadorans to remain in Canada, it sent a team to El Salvador to interview and assist potential refugee claimants, and it instructed Canadian consulates in the U.S. to issue visas to Salvadoran refugees who were facing deportation from the United States. It enacted similar policies for Guatemalan refugees.
From 1982 to 1987, Canada welcomed almost 16,000 refugees from Central American countries. As a representative from the Inter-Church Committee for Refugees said back then, “The Americans are not living up to their obligations as signatories of the United Nations Protocol [on refugees]. And given the official American position on these people, the Canadian government has taken a courageous stand.”
Today in El Salvador, homicide rates are higher than they were during the worst years of civil war violence during the 1980s. It is time for the Canadian government to take a courageous stand once again, and Canadians must push our government to act. They must call on Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen to rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, meet the UNHCR’s requests for aid and show the 294,000 Central American refugees that Canada will no longer look away.
Jaymie Heilman is an associate professor in the Department of History and Classics.
This article originally appeared today in Policy Options.