Canada: closing the door to Central American refugees

THE Canadian government made a shocking announcement not so long ago. Special programs designed to facilitate rapid assistance to refugees and displaced persons from 18 countries were cancelled. Refugees entering Canada from such countries as El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Hungary, and Lebanon will no longer receive special permits for entry to Canada, work authorization, welfare benefits and guaranteed nonremoval from Canada. Now all refugees seeking entry to Canada across the US-Canadian border must remain in the United States pending a hearing in Canada. Why this dramatic shift in Canadian policy less than four months after the Canadian people were recognized for their outstanding achievements on behalf of the world's refugees with the prestigious Nansen Medal, awarded for the first time to an entire people?

Until recently, Canadian refugees policy, especially toward those from the Western hemisphere, stood in sharp contrast to US policy. US policy toward Central American refugees during the last six years of brutal civil war and persecution in that region has been one of detention, denial of access to the asylum process, and discriminatory adjudication of asylum requests. In contrast, Canada generously welcomed Central Americans, by processing applicants in the US for resettlement to Canada as refugees and by accommodating those who presented themselves at the border with the benefits of the now-defunct ``special programme.''

But now, the Canadians have announced that Central Americans and others will be turned back to the US if they approach the Canadian border. Under the new policy, each Central American eventually must go through a formal procedure for recognition as a refugee in Canada. For now, that process involves a review of each application by the well-respected Refugee Status Advisory Committee. That process is not plagued with the kind of overt discrimination corroborated by a recent US government General Accounting Office study of the US asylum determination process. Yet, permanent changes in refugee law presently contemplated by the Canadian government could shut the door completely to all requests by Central American refugees for safe haven in Canada by the end of this year.

The Canadian action implicates US policy in two ways. First, it may have been caused in part by our new immigration law. Second, the removal of the ``safety net'' in Canada for Central American refugees puts increased pressure on US policy toward victims of government-sponsored terror. Now, there literally is no safe haven in North America.

Canada has received a steady stream of persons from the US since the passage of the US Immigration Reform and Control Act, the ``Simpson-Rodino'' bill. Foreign-born workers are being fired from their jobs by employers worried about large fines. Others, fearful of future termination, are heading north. Still more refugees, confused by the new law's amnesty provisions, fear they may be subject to immediate deportation from the US.

The change in Canadian policy brings into focus the consistently heartless treatment of Central Americans by the US. From the beginning of the influx of Central Americans into the US during the heyday of the Salvadoran death squads and Guatemalan Army sweeps in the early 1980s, when thousands were assassinated each year, to the more ``acceptable'' systematic torture and arbitrary arrests of the present, the US government has denied 97 percent of the Salvadoran and 99 percent of the Guatemalan requests for asylum. The recent US Supreme Court decision, in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, requires the Immigration and Naturalization Service to cease imposing an excessively burdensome level of proof on asylum-seekers. But there is a strong likelihood that this significant legal decision will only raise false hopes for these refugees. Because the administration policy toward Central American asylum requests is unlikely to be affected by the decision, this particular group of refugees is almost certain to face essentially the same exacting asylum process. Even a modest amendment to the Simpson-Rodino bill that would have protected some refugees for the next two years during a ``study period'' was categorically rejected by the administration as unacceptable to any immigration legislative reform.

So US policy toward Central Americans, diametrically opposed to the spirit of 1980 legislation to assist refugees, continues. And now, Canada joins us in this derogation of our mutual responsibilities to refugees under both domestic law and United Nations treaty. Such policies do little to bolster the credibility of North American governments when they pressure developing nations to share, at disproportionate rates, the immense burdens of refugee settlement. In addition, these policies do little to enhance our own sense of morality as a nation and as a people having compassion for the victims of persecution.

Carolyn Patty Blum, lecturer at the Boalt Hall Law School, University of California at Berkeley, has a Ford Foundation research grant to study US and Canadian asylum law and policy.

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