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Bill C-31: Why is Canada cracking down on refugees?

In June 2012, Canada passed Bill C-31, a new law that changes the federal immigration system, particularly the asylum claims system. The law came into effect mid-December.  “Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act” puts unprecedented power in the hands of the Immigration Minister, largely strips the claims process of judicial oversight, and opens the door for prison privatization.

New mechanisms to criminalize refugees

The law designates a “safe country list” chosen by the minister, designed to expedite the process for asylum claimants from member countries. The law speeds up the appeal process for these claimants into a precariously short period of time and takes away the option of appeal for those on the list denied claims. Safe country members have 45 days for their claim to be heard; non-members have 1,000. The theory underlying this list is that claimants from safe countries (mostly located in the EU) do not generally come from countries with repressive regimes, and thus do not qualify as legitimate refugees. Indeed, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has referred to them as “bogus refugees.” This thinking, however, ignores both victims of domestic abuse and the Roma (more commonly known as gypsies), who often file claims from Hungary.

Additionally, the law contains another highly controversial clause: a mandatory detention period for irregular arrivals. Sparked by the 2010 arrival of several hundred Tamil refugees on Vancouver Island, the regulations require a mandatory detention period of up to six months, without judicial review, for groups deemed “irregular arrivals” by the minister. This qualification extends to anybody appearing suspicious or suspected of involvement in human smuggling, and is entirely based on subjective judgment. It also changes the minimum age for detention, lowered to 16 years from 18 years, permitting for the incarceration of minors in adult detention centers.

These new regulations clearly violate basic human rights and accountability standards. Equally if not more importantly, the law follows a newly emerging global pattern: that of increased detention in response to global migration.

Globalization has facilitated migration worldwide, and many countries have, in response, tightened their immigration laws under pressure from vocal fringe groups with xenophobic tendencies. Groups like the National Front in France, the British National Party, and the Tea Party-dominated Republican party in the US have all responded to constituents’ anti-immigrant views and cracked down on migrants, both legal and illegal.

The tendency here is to criminalize migrants, or at least come as close to it as possible. Ironically, most states will not admit to it. Canada, in this case, stresses the difference between its immigration detention centers and actual prisons. However, approximately one-third of all immigration detainees are housed in non-immigration facilities, which include low, medium, and even maximum-level security federal prisons. The numbers of immigrants housed in these facilities has increased in the past few years, and is expected to increase further with the implementation of Bill C-31.

The immigration-industrial complex – an emerging global trend

In response to new mandatory detention regulations in C-31, several private prison corporations have been lobbying for access to public-private contracts to build new detention facilities. Ottawa has in turn expressed interest in exploring these partnerships.

Privatizing prisons and detention centers is in fact a promising option for governments looking to outsource incarceration costs with the ongoing appearance of accountability. Theoretically, private contractors have an incentive to change if they under-perform, as they face public criticism and the potential of losing contracts. However, this runs contrary to the tendency of large corporations to maximize their profits, often with minimal accountability.

In addition, the privatization of immigration detention often precedes larger-scale prison privatization. This trend is global – it happens in Australia, the UK, and South Africa – but the US presents the most problematic example. Over half of all immigrant detainees are housed in private facilities; Louisiana, which has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, keeps half of its inmates in privately-run facilities. It’s a lucrative business. Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the US, earns approximately $1.6 billion a year in revenues.

The new policies of Bill C-31, combined with Canada’s longtime tendency to hold migrants in criminal facilities, opens the door for this sort of predatory investment in the imprisonment of refugees. The US presents the most extreme example of this, and serves as an example that Canada should not seek to follow. Canada’s new policies could lead  to criminalization and marginalization of refugees in an alarming manner. In participating in this extreme and dangerous global trend, Canada contradicts its long-standing values and its history of acceptance, multiculturalism, and open doors.

– Molly Korab

(Featured photo: Attribution  DIAC Images, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 1:AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike  M. , Creative Commons, Flickr)




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