And Canada has been looking for loopholes ever since.
There's a good, lengthy feature in the Montreal Gazette about Canada's refugee policy, both historically and currently. It ran on June 20, which was World Refugee Day. (By coincidence, I spent the day transcribing a war resister's IRB hearing!)
"Sometimes A Safe Haven" lays out the facts and myths about the Canadian refugee system - who it serves, who it fails, and how it measures up. Unsurprisingly, as this endless Conservative government smears its fingerprints over every aspect of Canadian life, refugee claimaints are waiting longer for resolution, a smaller percentage of claims are being accepted, and the entire process is being prejudiced by a minister who can't seem to keep his mouth shut.
The last time Esly Moreno ever saw the man she loved was on a snowy day in February 2006, at the St. Bernard de Lacolle border crossing. Dennis Asuncion Rivera, 21, a handsome car salesman, and the petite Moreno, then two months shy of her 19th birthday, had fled Honduras together three months earlier.
The common-law couple, who were expecting a baby, hoped to find refuge in Canada from a criminal gang that had made death threats against Rivera.
But their dream of a safe haven shattered against the Safe Third Country Agreement, which enables the United States and Canada to turn away asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Canada border by requiring them to apply for refugee status in the first country they entered.
Moreno, who had a sister in Montreal, was allowed into Canada under a provision for refugee claimants with relatives in Canada. But immigration agents returned Rivera to the U.S., which deported him to Honduras.
A month later, members of the M-18 gang murdered Rivera, an increasingly commonplace tragedy in a country where, according to the U.S. State Department, gang members outnumber police by three to one.
His death highlights what refugee advocates say are growing cracks in Canada's record as a refuge for people fleeing persecution.
. . . .
Canadians have led the world in sheltering people needing protection. . . . But as they mark World Refugee Day, advocates charge that Canada's measures in recent years to deter asylum-seekers are undermining its legal commitment to refugees.
"Canada, like most western states, ever since it signed the convention, has been looking for ways to evade its international legal responsibilities," said Audrey Macklin, a professor of law at the University of Toronto.
"The objective is to prevent asylum-seekers from arriving at the border and claiming the rights provided under the convention." In addition to the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada uses a variety of techniques to deflect refugees from its borders, Macklin added. These include stringent immigration rules, intercepting ships on the open seas and posting immigration officers in overseas airports to screen passengers' travel documents before boarding.
. . .
The 35,000 refugee claimants who managed to outwit immigration laws to reach Canada in 2008 are a mere trickle compared to the 42 million people in the world uprooted by war and persecution, according to a report this week by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. They include 16 million refugees who have fled their countries and 26 million displaced people within war-torn countries.
Goldman noted that media reports often tout Canada's generosity toward asylum-seekers. But 80 per cent of refugees live in developing nations like Pakistan and Iran, which bear the costs of hosting them. It's all but impossible to seek refuge in Canada without breaking immigration laws, Goldman said. That's because you need a visa to travel from a refugee-producing country, but such visas are usually unobtainable.
"There's a kind of hypocrisy," Goldman said. "Canada does everything possible to stop people from ever getting here. It's a Catch-22." While the media often portrays asylum-seekers unsympathetically, Goldman said, most people are compassionate toward individual refugees.
. . .
Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has expressed similar [negative] sentiments, charging that asylum-seekers are committing "wide-scale and almost systematic abuse" of Canada's refugee system.
"This is clearly an abuse of Canada's generosity," Kenney told a Canwest News reporter in March, commenting on a rise in refugee claims last year.
The number of asylum-seekers from April 1, 2008, to March 31, 2009, was 36,269, up from 30,581 for the same period in 2007-08, according to the IRB.
The spike in claims "is a violation of the integrity of our immigration system," said Kenney, adding that there is a "broad political consensus" that Canada's refugee system is broken. The minister did not respond to a request for an interview.
Kenney singled out a surge in asylum-seekers from Mexico, who can enter Canada without a visa under the North American Free Trade Agreement, as evidence the system is being abused.
But Crépeau said that drug-related and family violence in Mexico is cause for concern. "The state is not protecting you," he said. The fact that Mexican resorts like Cancun are popular with Canadians does not mean all refugee claims from the country are unfounded, he said.
. . .
Last year, the IRB accepted 7,596 refugees and rejected 6,816 others. Another 3,778 applicants gave up their claims.
The drop in the number of successful asylum-seekers "is part of a continued trend wherein access to Canada via land borders has become very difficult," Jedwab said.
A growing backlog at the IRB also contributed to fewer refugee claims being approved. The backlog of asylum-seekers in the system has risen to 58,000 from 20,000 since 2005. Understaffing of the IRB was a contributing factor. In March, Auditor General Sheila Fraser called attention to the government's failure to fill openings on the IRB, creating delays in processing refugee claims.
In the House of Commons last month, Kenney vehemently denied the suggestion the government was letting delays accumulate in order to undermine the refugee system.
. . .
"The only person in Canada who can send someone to their death is a board member of the IRB," he said. While most IRB members are well-intentioned, some are unqualified to rule on the validity of refugee claims, said Crépeau, who recommends increasing lawyers on the IRB to 50 per cent of board members from the current 10 per cent.
Crépeau also called on the government to enact a bill passed in 2001 to establish an appeal division in the IRB, a cause the Bloc Québécois has championed in Parliament.
In the wake of 9/11, the rights of refugees were sometimes set aside as western governments tightened security in the fight against terrorism, Crépeau said.
But the human rights of non-citizens must not be forgotten, he said.
"The ultimate issue we're seeing emerging is that we're talking about human beings," Crépeau said.
"Why should they be treated with less fairness simply because they are not Canadian? We're talking about justice."