It's wrong to shut door on European refugees

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 3rd of March 2012   Source: By Catherine Dauvergne, Vancouver Sun

This article is archive

Last week's new immigration omnibus bill takes aim at refugees from supposedly safe places, like Europe. It is ironic that refugees from Europe are now the most suspect. The current legal definition of a refugee was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. Until the mid-1960s, only Europeans could be refugees.


There are three things wrong with targeting refugees from Europe. Each one of them is complicated, so they make bad sound-bite politics.


The first is that despite the existence of the European Union, Europe remains a variety of different nations. Conditions in those nations vary enormously. This is common sense for any-one familiar with the rolling waves of European financial woes. Despite the blanket of human rights protections now in place at the European level, access to those rights is uneven. Some individuals have utterly inadequate rights protections, which is why some Roma are found to be refugees, in Canada and elsewhere, every year.


This brings us to the second problem. In moving to become an ever more inspiring paragon of human rights glory, Europe itself has stepped outside of international law and eliminated refugees from within its borders. In harmonizing its asylum laws in 2006, European nations agreed that no citizen of a European nation could be a refugee. Unfortunately, this legal change does not change the reality of people's lives. But under this agreement no one from a European state can claim refugee protection in another European state. This ups the ante for other refugee-receiving states like Canada.


Citizens of European states can cross Europe's borders freely. And they can seek work anywhere. But without work, they cannot remain permanently; they cannot become full members of society; they cannot build settled lives. European citizenship is not like full national citizenship, it is tightly bound to fitting into the economy. This is hard to do for people who have faced persecution all their lives. Indeed, the persecution that keeps people out of the for-mal economy and hurts their chances of joining it, is one reason why some-one might be a refugee.


The economic focus points to the third problem. Often when Canada wants to limit the flow of asylum seekers, our government imposes a visa on nationals of the country in question. This is what Canada did in 2009 with Mexico and the Czech Republic. This is invariably unpopular with the governments concerned, as it has been in these cases.


But in the case of the Czech Republic, the contention has stretched across Europe. Because Canada is seeking to close a trade deal with Europe, it is politically unthinkable for us to impose greater visa restrictions on all European nationals. So rather than use a high-profile, political way of stemming asylum flows, the new measures take aim at individual countries. This ducks the political cost and instead imposes a human rights cost.


It is very hard for a European national to make a successful refugee claim. This is why so few claims are successful. But every year some are. Because the bar is so high, these refugees often have horrific stories. In a political atmosphere where the European refugee is increasingly unfathomable, this is not surprising.


No one is asking Canada to do more than it has committed to under inter-national law. But Canada must not do less. Every refugee claimant must have the same chance to be heard. Those few who are refugees from Europe need the steadfast support of nations like Canada now more than ever.


It is true that many states have introduced provisions that are harsher than those in place in here. There is a race to the bottom in refugee law around the globe. We need not win it.


Catherine Dauvergne teaches in the faculty of law at the University of British Columbia.


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