Refugee Lives and Political Whim: On Trump, Trudeau, and the refugees they seek to shut out

February 2017

Incredulously, I watched a video of a crowd of hundreds of protesters chanting, ‘Let them see their lawyers NOW!’ The video was taken at a US airport over this past weekend.  Photographs taken in that same airport showed lawyers sitting in groups on the floor, hunched over their computers. They were drafting emergency court petitions in support of the individuals who were detained when their flights arrived – people who had been mid-air when Donald Trump’s Executive Order banned the entry into the US of individuals from seven predominately Muslim populated countries.  I have never been as proud of my fellow immigration lawyers and human rights activists as I was this past weekend.  And I have never felt more grateful for the rule of law, when those court petitions were successful.

Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, responded to the events on Twitter with the following:

To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada

And yet, just a month earlier, the Canadian government had its own Donald Trump moment, though one that didn’t lead to mass protests and extensive media coverage.

Our current Liberal government campaigned on a platform that included increasing the number of refugees Canada would admit, as well as speeding up processing times for refugees destined for Canada. They also promised to make it easier for refugees from civil war-torn Syria and Iraq to be identified and processed for resettlement.

One of methods used to facilitate this was to allow Syrians and Iraqis to apply for refugee protection from Canada even though they had not received official recognition from the United Nations Refugee Agency (“UNHCR”) or an equivalent local authority. They would still be required to prove that they are legitimate refugees to Canadian visa officers, but they wouldn’t need to wait for the UNHCR to determine their status first.  

This policy recognized that the UNCHR and surrounding countries are overwhelmed with providing food and shelter to the thousands of people fleeing those unstable areas. The organization does not have the capacity to quickly organize intake interviews needed to make the refugee status determinations. In fact, some asylum-seekers have to wait years before they are able to get in front of an intake officer to present their case to be deemed a refugee. It was the implementation of this policy that allowed the Liberals to meet their election promise of welcoming 25,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the country.

However, after that initial promise of 25,000 refugees was met, the Liberals slowly backed away from their newfound zeal of welcoming refugees. The 2017 immigration levels plan provided less room in the annual quota for refugees.  Then, on December 19, 2016, the government announced that in 2017, it would only allow 1,000 applications from Iraqi and Syrians without refugee status documentation.  After that, only those who have already gone through the determination process would be allowed to apply.  

In response, Louisa Taylor of the grassroots organization Refugee 613 tweeted:

We all have so many reasons to be proud of Canada’s world-leading #refugee resettlement, but limited intake of sponsorship applications is not one of them.

The impact was utter panic for Canadians hoping to get family members out of Syria and Iraq. My associate, Fanni Csaba, was assisting one such family through her work with the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program.  Their Iraqi relatives were still in Iraq, waiting for a permit that would allow them to board a flight without being arrested at the airport.  They could not apply for refugee status until they left the country.  They were now in a major rush, but had no control over the situation.

Application forms had to be prepared, and legal submissions drafted, so that they could apply to be sponsored immediately after they arrived safely in Turkey. That was the only way they had a chance of making it into that 1,000-person quota.  Fanni worked tirelessly over the holiday period, even working on her submissions on Christmas Day, hoping to have everything prepared in time. She was asked repeatedly about when she thought the quota would be reached, but could not give an answer. The government would did not disclose this information. Her sponsoring group spent hours and hours liaising with their family members, finalizing the details for the application. Throughout the month of January, when nothing was announced, the family kept hoping that they’d be lucky enough to be able to leave Iraq and apply before the cap was reached.  

It was all for nothing. On January 25, 2017 the government announced that the quota had been met.  In fact, a colleague posted to our listserv that an application she sent in on January 16th was returned as the quota had already been met then. 

The family Fanni was assisting will no longer have a chance to come to Canada this year, or even next. A little over one month ago, they had hope that they could start fresh in a country that welcomes them, and appreciates what they’ve been through. Now, when they do manage to get out of Iraq, they will have to wait years and years before their Canadian family members to be permitted to sponsor them.  In the meanwhile, they will live in limbo, uncertain of what their futures will be.  Countries around Iraq and Syria are beyond overwhelmed with the inflow of people. For at least the next few years, this family will struggle to find work, and afford the basic necessities of life.  

As immigration and refugee lawyers, all we can down is hunker over our computers, and continue to work away. Meanwhile, we wait for the time that the winds of political whim will favour those seeking protection.  When those in power are ready to open their doors wide enough for the privileged few to come through, we will be ready.  

If you have family in Syrian and Iraq and are hoping to assist them to safety in Canada, please see this Refugee 613 blog post for additional information.