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CANADA: Migrant Rights Tested by Most-Wanted List

Fawzia Sheikh

TORONTO, Sep 25 2011 (IPS) - Ottawa’s clampdown on some of the country’s worst criminal offenders by creating a public most-wanted list netted its most recent arrest only days ago, but the system has triggered a debate over the publishing of fugitives’ names and the ethics and feasibility of changing Canadian immigration policy.

A Guyanese national with several criminal convictions in Canada such as violence and weapons-related offences was arrested in Toronto on Sep. 15 due to a tip to the most-wanted website of the Canadian Border Services Agency.

Shameer Allie, who was wanted on a Canada-wide warrant for removal from the country, is the fifth person to be located via the website list of dangerous criminals living illegally in Canada, including war criminals, established by the government earlier this summer.

Yet the success of the fugitive programme has been marred by criticisms of the immigration system itself.

In August, Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews slammed the Immigration and Refugee Board’s alleged lax treatment of one of the dangerous individuals who had been caught through a tip line. Walter Guzman of El Salvador, who earned a ranking on the CBSA’s list for trafficking in an illegal substance, assault, breaking and entering, and uttering threats, was released on bail.

The incident sparked Ottawa’s decision to mull changes to immigration legislation. Toews argued the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act leaned toward releasing people on the verge of deportation and challenging the government to prove that those in custody are a public danger.

Since Toews’s announcement in August about reviewing Canadian immigration policies, there is still no definitive decision regarding how the federal government will proceed.

“Min. Toews has asked his officials to investigate possible changes to the legislation to ensure the integrity of our border and our immigration system,” Julie Carmichael, press secretary for Toews, told IPS in an e-mail. “Individuals looking to take advantage of our generous immigration system will find no haven on our shores.”

Some civil society organisations argue that Canadian immigration laws already take into account violent offenders because people can be detained for being a danger to the public.

The Immigration and Refugee Board is charged with balancing individual rights against government evidence of a person’s violent nature, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees based in Montreal. Anyone who cares about the right to liberty should be concerned about Ottawa’s announcement that it may amend the law to make it easier to detain people, she told IPS.

Legal revisions under consideration seem to “undermine the independence of the judiciary,” Dench noted, “and in a democracy it’s really important that you have a strong and independent judiciary.”

While the courts are responsible for weighing individual cases, “sometimes the results are unfortunate”, she conceded.

For the most part, Dench views negatively the publishing of the country’s most-wanted criminal lists on the CBSA website. The council regards the effort as a “concerted campaign by the government” to associate refugees and immigrants with criminality and abuse when, in fact, government representatives have confirmed only a “tiny proportion” of newcomers commit crimes, she said.

Dench told IPS her organisation has already felt the impact of the government’s move in the form of increased “hate-filled diatribes”, some of which are clearly tied to the publicity surrounding the fugitive lists that “feed into very blatant racism”.

A few weeks ago, Amnesty International Canada also weighed in on the CBSA’s publication of the names of fugitives who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Canada must ensure that an accused human rights violator, for example from North Korea, is “not sent back to either escape justice or to himself become a victim of torture”, wrote Alex Neve, the secretary- general of Amnesty International Canada, in an Aug. 25 op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen.

A potential bid to reform immigration laws and the creation of lists of criminal offenders underpin a “broader problem” in Canadian society than most realise, argued James Bissett, an adviser to the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform.

A review of the CBSA issued by the Canadian Auditor-General in 2007 found that there were “62,000 warrants for the arrest of failed asylum-seekers, that is, people who come into Canada claiming that they need protection because they are refugees,” Bissett told IPS.

The Immigration and Refugee Board had ordered these individuals to leave Canada after denying the sincerity of their claims, said Bissett, a former ambassador and the former executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service.

He added that none of these asylum-seekers, who generally do not receive an immediate hearing due to the backlog of some 50,000 claims, would have been evaluated on security, health or criminal levels when they entered Canada. For these reasons, Bissett argued, Canada’s refugee asylum system has made it a target for human smuggling.

Traditionally, the federal government has made no attempt to “chase these people down or keep track of them” probably due to a lack of resources, he noted, adding that the current government has decided to make these outstanding warrants a priority by publishing people’s names.

Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the officers reviewing each case determine whether an individual can be released, he said. It may be a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms if Ottawa goes “beyond those rules”, Bissett argued.

However, in the end, he added, the government may push through stronger regulations diminishing the refugee board’s “discretionary authority to release”.

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