The Canadian representative to the United Nations' refugee agency is worried about a rising tide of Conservative fear-mongering about refugees and asylum seekers, which could sink the efforts of governments and human rights advocates to alleviate a growing global migration crisis — unless they do not "enter into a serious dialogue" to dispel such myths.
"The terminology we hear in Canada lately, like 'queue jumper,' 'bogus claim,' and 'illegal', just taints refugees as a threat and neglects completely the reason why they come and their individual stories," Jean-Nicolas Beuze told National Observer in an interview, adding that such labels instill in public discourse "that there’s something wrong with these people."
"There’s nothing wrong with escaping for your life to come to a country like Canada and ask to be protected. There’s nothing wrong with that," he said. "This is a principle of community that has been long recognized: that you offer a safe space for people who are unable to survive in their usual space."
Beuze spoke to National Observer in Toronto on Dec. 12, two days after Canada joined 163 other countries in Morocco to sign onto the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration — the first symbolic treaty ever to address all aspects of international migration in 23 listed objectives, from mitigating worker exploitation to stopping human trafficking.
The Canadian representative at the United Nations High Commission on Refugees explained that it was the first time member states will agree on a text that "will ensure that people who decide or choose to go from one country to another for economic opportunity, family reunification, better learning or education opportunities, do so in an orderly fashion and do it through legal pathways," adding that most of the approximately 250 million people that moved from one country to another in 2017 did so for the reasons he listed and "in an orderly manner."
The treaty, however, has ignited a number of fears about migration across the world. A number of countries — notably including the United States and Australia — refused to sign the treaty, expressing concerns that signing onto the treaty meant giving up their national sovereignty. This same argument has been expressed by Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, who held a press conference on Parliament Hill two weeks ago to warn against “foreign entities” influencing Canadian border and migration policies.
Scheer’s press conference came after Maxine Bernier, leader of the newly-formed hard-right People’s Party of Canada, sponsored a petition in October urging the Liberals not to accept the agreement, noting that nations who sign on may be sacrificing their “sovereignty, peace, order and good governance." The petition led to nation-wide protests against the agreement.
Beuze is particularly worried about the way such populist and inaccurate rhetoric about refugees is capturing what he calls "the anxious middle of the political spectrum," or the undecided voters. "We haven't been able to convince them that these refugees are not a threat to our society," Beuze said. "Instead, we're seeing more and more populist rhetoric, which leads to more physical attacks of a xenophobic nature on people."
Canada, as a top ten donor to the UNHCR and a key country for resettlement, has an important role to play convincing countries to engage positively with the refugees issue, he said.
"There’s nothing wrong with escaping for your life to come to a country like Canada and ask to be protected," @jnbeuze said on the dangers of populist & inaccurate rhetoric surrounding refugees & asylum seekers #cdnpoli
Beuze said it was important for Canada to avoid following the route of a number of Western countries whose governments have responded to disparaging talk "about refugees, migrants, foreigners with more physical and legal obstacles for the people coming to their country."
Instead, he says, countries need to demonstrate there is another way to approach the issue. “We need more Canada."
'Shame on those people or anyone spreading rumours about migrants:' Hussen
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen's first stop back in Canada after signing the Global Compact in Morocco was Toronto's Ryerson University, where he addressed students about what he called three key myths surrounding Canada’s support for the symbolic treaty.
"The first myth is that Global Compact of Migration is somehow a conspiracy by the United Nations to force countries to follow the UN's prescription for what their national migration policies should be," Hussen said to the university audience on Dec. 14. "That's false. None of that is true. The agreement is clearly non-binding....It reaffirms every country's sovereignty to determine its own immigration policies."
"The second one is that somehow this agreement will muzzle free speech, will muzzle media in UN member countries," Hussen continued. "Again that's not true. That's false."
"The third one is that this agreement will somehow erase borders," Hussen concluded, "Again not true. That's false."
Hussen has engaged in a public back-and-forth with Conservative leaders across the country who staunchly disagree with his policies, most notably Scheer and Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's immigration minister. Immigration advocates say the federal immigration minister has the unenviable task of upholding Canada's commitment to refugees around the world and at home while also countering increasing bouts of misinformation.
“The federal Conservatives are spreading lies and myths about a non-binding document,” Hussen said. “The compact is a framework. It allows countries to work together on what is essentially a global phenomenon: to deal with irregular migration and to harness the proven aspects of regular migration."
Hussen explained that one of the treaty's 23 objectives calls for more work to be done to harmonize credentials; another commits countries to prevent abuse and exploitation of temporary foreign workers. The federal immigration minister noted that these were issues the Canadian Liberal government had already committed to addressing and resolving.
He called out one particular article written by the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, which falsely reported that refugees were slaughtering goats in the bathrooms of a Toronto hotel as part of an Islamic ritual. The National NewsMedia Council last week denounced The Sun for publishing Levy’s column, which relied on a Trip Advisor review of the hotel, with the oversight body saying that "citing an unsubstantiated post from a crowdsourced platform as evidence is akin to citing a rumour."
"Shame on those people or anyone spreading rumours about migrants, who’re among the most vulnerable people in our society," Hussen said to applause. "The same nonsense and garbage being spread about migrants today were the same ones aimed at the Irish decades ago when they were coming to Toronto."
Hussen added that he doesn't "think that everybody who’s concerned about immigration issues are racists or xenophobic."
“But it can’t be denied that there are those out there who are spreading lies and using these immigration-related issues to spread fear.”
You can't put a 'price tag on human rights'
A lot of the opposition from the federal Conservatives has also been rooted in the costs of refugee integration. According to the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer, it will cost more than $1.1 billion over the next three years to process refugees crossing into Canada via the popular Roxham Road route into Quebec and elsewhere.
Beuze acknowledged that the price tag may seem steep, but that it is not dissimilar to what other G7 countries spend on refugee settlement and integration and that upfront financial costs were not a good measure to assess global migration movements.
"I would like to get outside the money issue. I think we need to look at the bigger picture," Beuze said. "Frankly I spent 20 years of my life in the field and the only comparison I make is of the generosity of the Bangladeshi, Ugandan or Lebanese populations who often share their physical space, opening the door of their own houses when they already have very little compared to any German, any Canadian, any American."
"We have to be careful about this attempt to put a price tag on human rights," Beuze said, emphasizing that Canada's system ensures that "a person we recognize as a refugee meets the definition of a refugee." This person, Beuze explains, is "somebody who is changing countries, not because of choice or to get a better life but because this person is actually fleeing a threat to his or her life or the lives of his or her children."
"We are speaking about rape survivors. We are speaking about journalists who are threatened. We are speaking about people from war-torn countries like Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq. We’re speaking about young people escaping gang violence in central America, who are forced or recruited into these gangs or else beaten up," he said.
Beuze added that census studies have shown that within 10-15 years, refugees become contributing members of Canadian society by paying taxes, creating jobs and promoting Canada on the world stage through innovation and culture — contributions that "far exceed the cost it took to bring them here, assess their claim, and integrate them through language classes, social benefits, accommodation and so on," Beuze said.
Ninety per cent of refugees and asylum seekers won't come to Canada spontaneously or via settlement routes, Beuze said. They will stay near the conflict zone, mostly in middle or low income counties and mostly in the poorest neighborhoods of those countries. These are not G7 countries, he noted, which have public services readily available. There is no running water in the northern part of Uganda, home to over 1 million Sudanese refugees. There is very little electricity in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, home to over 700,000 Rohingya refugees.
"Those societies are exhibiting far more empathy and are far more understanding of what our common humanity is," Beuze said. "If the global south can do that, it worries me that we here in the western world are unable to do so."