Mr. Speaker, Bill C-4 concerns me in a very particular way and I think it should be rejected for many reasons, but mainly for humanitarian and social justice reasons.
I am able to stand before you here today in part because my parents were granted refugee status in 1980, thanks to the Canadian government's openness and its profound understanding of the precarious situation they found themselves in at the time. That extremely positive move allowed thousands of Vietnamese people to escape the miserable conditions in which they lived and to regain their dignity in Canada.
I do not dare even think about the additional consequences my parents would have suffered if Bill C-4 had been in force when they arrived in this country. Through their story, I will explain my position and demonstrate why I think this bill is clearly unfair and, more importantly, misses the target.
In 1979, after the Vietnam war, my parents decided to flee their country because of the horrible living conditions imposed by the new political regime and in the hopes of finding a better quality of life elsewhere. They could no longer endure the restrictions, the violence and the injustices that happened after the war. They jumped at the first opportunity to flee in the middle of the night, in secret, with my two brothers, who were one and three at the time. They made their way to a port and paid the smugglers with the last of their belongings, that is, whatever they could carry, such as clothing and jewellery. They got on a boat, with the direction indicated by a compass, in other words, anywhere, without knowing if the smugglers would take them to a safe harbour, take them somewhere dangerous or simply abandon them along the way. They risked their entire lives and those of their children.
Why did they decide to come by boat? The answer is simple: they had no other choice. Some 400 other people were also on the boat with them.
This bill creates two categories of refugees, including those who are designated because of their method of arrival, namely, by boat. These refugees are at a higher risk of detention than those who arrive by plane. This provision violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality before the law, as well as the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which prohibits States from imposing sanctions on refugees because of their illegal entry. What is meant by illegal entry? This term has not been defined and remains unclear.
In addition, few refugees think to bring proof of identity. Their only concern is to save themselves, to disappear as quickly and quietly as possible. These people who do not have any identification are automatically suspected of not being real refugees. As a result, the minister could deem them to be “designated foreign nationals” and they could be detained. The burden of proof is being reversed here. Refugee claimants arriving in Canada are no longer free while they wait for their claims to be processed. They are detained and considered “designated foreign nationals” until proven otherwise. This arbitrary detention is contrary to the charter and international law.
As my parents can attest, the journey made by refugees is long and difficult. Their ultimate goal is to survive the many dangers and threats they face: a lack of hygiene, food and water, as well as the many attacks by pirates who may rape the women, steal the refugees' belongings or commit gratuitous acts of violence against them just to scare them. That is exactly why most countries in the world, including Canada, signed the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951.
The convention's preamble states that human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination. It seems that the members of the Conservative government forgot this principle when they drafted this odious bill.
At the time, my parents were able to choose a host country since they were recognized as refugees on humanitarian grounds. Clearly, they were questioned, photographed and made to take an oath. Canada provided them with identification documents since they did not have any.
Under Bill C-4, my parents and my brothers likely would have been deemed “designated claimants” and would have all been mandatorily detained upon their arrival for a period of one year or possibly more. Since my parents did not have any documents, it was very difficult to establish their identity. Such imprisonment is completely arbitrary and discriminatory, is it not?
Before arriving in Canada, they were already scarred from their painful escape: recurring nightmares, irrational fear of thieves, no trust or great difficulty developing trust in people, and constant suspicion of everyone.
They saw danger everywhere at all times. They have also suffered greatly from being uprooted from their country and their family. They never talk about that experience because it was too atrocious, too harsh and the memories are unbearable. Nonetheless, in order to help put things into context, yesterday my parents agreed to retell their story to me.
It is hard to live in a refugee camp and go through the trials of being on the boat; it is also hard to adapt to the way of life in the new country, to culture shock, to social integration, to the temperature, to social isolation caused mostly by the language barrier and because they were potentially dangerous foreigners. At the time, my parents spoke rudimentary French.
Sending them to prison to boot under the pretext that they represented a potential threat would have been completely ludicrous in their case and in the case of thousands of other Vietnamese refugees.
Why not attack the traffickers more effectively in this case and dig deeper into what they are doing here and abroad instead of attacking the refugees?
Fortunately at the time, Canada opened the door to my parents and all those people in distress who were fleeing their country. My parents were gradually able to integrate into Canadian society. They learned French and worked very hard. When they arrived, they had to cope with underpaid exhausting work, frustration and discrimination. However, they managed to integrate. They went to school, they took care of us and they both became nurses. Today my parents take care of sick people and they do so with the same compassion they were shown by Canadians when they first arrived here in need of refuge.
My parents would have had an entirely different experience if the bill the Conservatives are proposing today had been in effect. They might have been detained with their two young children for a year or more. They would have been denied the right to social integration and dignity. Canadian society as a whole would miss out, because to send refugee claimants to prison is to deny Canada many courageous and intelligent people who want to contribute to the country's growth.
If Canadian authorities had made a mistake and had denied my parents refugee status, they would have been able to appeal. But this bill takes that right away from refugees because rulings on claims by designated persons cannot be appealed to the Refugee Appeal Division. This violates the provisions of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Conservatives are saying that this bill will reduce the amount of human trafficking. But in reality, the bill, in its current form, puts too much power in the hands of the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and unjustly penalizes refugees.
I agree that we should punish criminals, traffickers and smugglers directly. However, the bill, as it stands, punishes legitimate refugees and the people trying to help them.
If Canada had not accepted my parents, we would not be who we are today. My brothers, sisters and I inherited this desire to serve our country from our parents and the Canadians who welcomed them. For other stories like this to have a happy ending, we need to recognize the rights of those coming after us.
I am asking the members here to put themselves in the shoes of a refugee. Imagine the desperate conditions these people endure in war-torn countries: fear, hunger, suffering and torture. Would they not try to flee, risking their lives and carrying only the bare essentials? After fleeing the violence and persecution, they would be imprisoned upon their arrival in Canada. Does that make any sense? Detaining a person who is claiming refugee status without providing an independent review is both discriminatory and shocking.
This bill also strips certain refugees of the opportunity to apply for permanent residence. Refugee claimants are not allowed to sponsor their wife or children for five years. That is another clear violation of family rights.
As well, as we said earlier, children are imprisoned, with all of the negative consequences that can have on a child's development.
I would like to conclude by asking the government and this House that this bill be withdrawn and reworked so that it actually tackles the issue of traffickers and smugglers, not the rights and freedoms of refugees.