Immigration advocates give thumbs down to new biometrics rules for migrants

[This post, part of an assignment I recently completed with friend and UBC School of Journalism colleague Irina Sedunova, also appears at the web site we created as part of the project, Migrant’s Identity.]

Over the past 50 years, Canada has garnered an international reputation as an open, welcoming nation. But thus far in the 21st century, a decided shift toward rigidity and closure has characterized the country’s immigration policy.

Much like its neighbour to the south, Canada was profoundly shaken by the attacks of September 11, 2001, in which 26 of its citizens perished. In response to those tragic events, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien passed new legislation designed to bolster security and reassure the nation’s citizenry: among others, the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act; the 2001 Smart Border Declaration – intended to enhance security and information sharing between U.S. and Canadian officials; and the 2002 establishment of a nationwide database of airline passengers. The consequence of these new measures was a tightening of Canada’s immigration system and fortification of barriers to entry, to which the current Conservative administration has added yet more bulwarks.

Canada is a constituent nation of the Group of Five, or for intelligence purposes, the Five Eyes. Along with its counterparts – Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and U.K. – the northern nation is expected to share security information, and bring itself in line with group protocol. Thus, when the Harper government announced last year that biometric screening and data collection would soon be required of refugee applicants, and later as part of visa and temporary residence applications for nationals of 29 countries and the Palestinian Authority, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney invoked solidarity with the Five Eyes as a key justification for the changes.

“Implementing biometrics will bring Canada in line with the growing list of countries that already use similar technologies, such as the U.K., Australia, the United States and other European countries,” announced the minister in February 2012, after a protracted rant on the cost to Canadian taxpayers of “bogus” refugee claimants. The underlying assumption is that this biometric groupthink is a move Canada would be wise to follow, in the name of enhanced border security and savings to the federal treasury.

But many immigrants, civil libertarians and immigrant rights advocates are concerned about the implications of the new requirements for foreigners wishing to seek asylum or long-term residency in Canada.

Harsha Walia, a Vancouver activist and founder of pro-immigration organization No One Is Illegal, finds the new measures discriminatory and invasive. Not only will nationals of certain countries be subject to heightened suspicion for no other reason than their nationality, she points out; their personal information will also be accessible to law enforcement, various government officials and private, profit-driven security firms for an indefinite period of time. In Walia’s view, this represents both a breach of immigrants’ right to privacy, and a de facto abrogation of the presumption of innocence.

Colombian national Rafael Puyana, currently completing a master’s degree at Emily Carr University and living in Vancouver on a student visa, will soon be subject to the new regulations. Puyana says once he is obliged, beginning in September, to provide his thumbprint and photo identification to immigration officials in order to remain in this country, he will feel like a perpetual suspect.

“Canada is a country that, at least from what I’ve seen, seems to treat everyone as equal,” says Puyana, who notes that the country’s longstanding embrace of refugee claimants and immigrants has instilled a favourable impression in his mind. “It’s weird that now [the Canadian government is] going to make these distinctions…[We] are gonna be labeled as something that other immigrants are not.”

“You can live with it, forget about it, but at the end [of the day], you are being labeled. There’s a circle around you, that has a tag, and it says ‘This is a Colombian. This is his name. This is what he does.’ And that’s scary.”

Citing concerns over his privacy, and the ease with which authorities could extract further information about him through the internet and social media, Puyana is justifiably nervous about what his future in Canada will bring.

While there is no single criterion that qualifies a country for inclusion on the dubious list, there are a few commonalities. Many of the nations – like Haiti, South Sudan, Eritrea and Bangladesh – are part of the developing world, the Global South, or, as in the case of Somalia, riven with poverty and lawlessness, and lacking the means for economic development. Nationals of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and others, meanwhile, have attracted heightened suspicion in the wake of 9/11. But worrisomely, several countries have also made the list by virtue of high visa rejection rates under Canada’s current immigration rules, or a history of inadequate or improper documentation for refugee claimants.

Changes to Canada's immigration system will likely make access to Canada's asylum and visa systems more difficult. In this photo, food is delivered to a refugee camp in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Image: Al Jazeera English

Changes to Canada’s immigration system will likely make access to Canada’s asylum and visa systems more difficult. In this photo, food is delivered to a refugee camp in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Image: Al Jazeera English

At first glance, it’s easy to attribute visa rejection or improper documentation to carelessness on the part of the applicant. But as immigration lawyer Lesley Stalker explains, this conclusion ignores a number of crucial factors.

“[The government has selected countries] where there’s been a high refusal rate of Temporary Residence visas in the past. And which are the countries that tend to have a high rate of refusal for TRPs? They’re countries where people are unlikely to return…In other words, these are countries that are war-torn, or have a very poor record of human rights abuses,” says Stalker.

“So, [the government] doesn’t say, right off the bat, ‘We don’t want people coming here to make refugee claims.’ But you don’t have to scratch very deeply to figure that out.”

As for nationals arriving without proper documentation, Stalker identifies another noteworthy tendency.

“Who arrives without proper documentation? It’s people who aren’t going to get visas to get [to Canada], but who need to get here to claim asylum,” she notes. “If you’re from the U.S., you don’t need to arrive with false papers; you get a passport from your country, you present yourself at the border, and you’re waved through. Same if you’re from Germany, or Italy, or Japan.”

Conversely, Stalker says, “If you’re from Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and you apply for a visa to come to Canada…you’re not likely to get that permit. And so the only way to get here, if you want to make a refugee claim, is to purchase false papers.”

Stalker believes Canada’s government is altering the country’s immigration policy in order to enhance its own economic station. This means the door is open to immigrants who bring advanced skills, knowledge, or pecuniary assets, and to temporary foreign workers who will fill seasonal labour needs and then return home once their services are no longer required. But at the same time, the federal administration is deliberately reducing options for refugee and visa applicants from specific countries, most of which face extraordinary barriers to entry already.

In addition to these problems, Stalker, like Puyana, says she is uncomfortable with the collection and storage of personal data the new immigration protocol will entail. Beginning this year, Visa Application Centres (VACs), operated jointly by the Canadian government and private security firms, will commence operations in the listed states. Applicants for visas and visa renewals will need to appear at the centres, where each individual will be obliged to pay an $85 processing fee, and provide fingerprints and photo identification, both of which will be accessible to law enforcement and intelligence officials throughout the Five Eyes.

“When I look at information from [Citizenship and Immigration Canada], the announcements on the web site, and the announcements by the minister, they always emphasize that the information of Canadian citizens or permanent residents will not be collected. So they realize that people are quite spooked by this, and they’re reassuring ‘Oh no, we would never dream of collecting your data; it’s only the data of those other, “unreliable” people that we’re going to collect.”

For his part, Minister Kenney has emphasized in speeches, announcements and media interviews that the changes to immigration protocol are to prevent foreign nationals from abusing Canada’s immigration system by filing invalid refugee claims, and remaining in the country after obtaining illegitimate visas. He also hopes the reforms will enable the government to remove alleged scofflaws from the country faster, reducing the number of appeals available to them, and saving Canadian taxpayers money.

“These new measures will further accelerate the processing of refugee claims for nationals from designated countries that generally do not produce refugees,” Kenney proclaimed last February.
“They will also reduce the options available to bogus claimants to delay their removal from Canada, which sometimes takes years and years. In fact, it takes at least 4.5 years on average for bogus refugee claimants to have run the course in all of the various appeals that they have. And then it takes us quite a lot longer to actually remove them from Canada, which is virtually an encouragement for people who want to come and abuse our generosity.”

Kenney has also emphasized what he sees as a need for Canadian immigration officials to access biometric identification information in order to verify the identity of visa and refugee applicants, and distinguish bona fide travellers and visitors from illegitimate abusers of the system.

However, as Stalker mentions, this will present a significant, and perhaps insurmountable, hurdle for vulnerable asylum seekers who have no alternative but to falsify documents in order to reach our shores.

“I think, [Kenney] has the view that ‘good’ people don’t take initiative, and find their way out of a refugee camp or out of a dangerous situation to make their way to Canada and have their claim assessed…[rather], they will wait for 10, 15 or 20 years in a refugee camp, and hope that they are one of the very few who are identified by UNHCR as needing resettlement.”

Reforms to the Canadian immigration system in 2010, despite being unfavourable to many active asylum seekers, did enable the resettlement in Canada of thousands more selected from refugee camps. Beginning this year, our country plans to offer resettlement to more than 14,000 asylum seekers annually, which would effectively double the roughly 7,000 government-sponsored refugees resettled in years prior. However, relative to the global need, this figure is a mere drop in the bucket; in 2012, the UNHCR estimated the number of refugees approved for resettlement worldwide at over 172,000. And this, in turn, is a fraction of the global total of refugees, now in the tens of millions.

Immigration law scholar and UBC professor Catherine Dauvergne, a proponent of greater liberalization of the Canadian immigration system, believes migration is already a divisive topic in Canada, but that the government currently in power is also working hard to shift public opinion in a direction of greater stringency.

“I think Canadian public opinion on immigration is quite divided, and I think what we’re seeing, maybe, in the 21st century, is more division than we have seen in the past over immigration to Canada, and public attitudes towards it.”

Further, Dauvergne adds that foreigners in general, and particularly those ascribed a status of heightened suspicion or illegitimacy, are “easy targets” for politicians looking to tighten border security or demonize perceived outsiders; they can’t vote, and frequently aren’t entitled to the rights that citizens and “legal” permanent residents enjoy.

“It’s always very easy [for journalists, advocates and/or activists] to generate a public interest story that’s sympathetic to an individual person without citizenship, or even without migration status. But it’s hard to generate sympathy for statistics.”

And in the case of Canada’s biometric identification protocols, the difficulty of eliciting sympathy for statistics is precisely the challenge critics will face, in their efforts to call public attention to the disconcerting new reality.

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