Canada: Fear of Refugees and Refugee Claimants

01 September 2017|Norbert Piché, Canada Country Director & Mario Brisson SJ, JRS Canada

A line of asylum-seekers who said they were from Haiti wait to enter into Canada from Roxham Road in Champlain, New York, Aug. 7, 2017. (Voice of America)

Fear. It is a very powerful emotion. Each one of us has known fear at one time or another. Fear of failing an exam; fear of losing one’s job; fear of the unknown; fear of losing somebody close; fear of dying… Nobody likes to live in fear. At the heart of every fear is the feeling of insecurity. And human beings spontaneously look for security.

For a few weeks now, we have seen the daily arrival of Haitians who are claiming refugee status on Canadian territory. They are coming here because they fear that the American administration will send them back to Haiti as of January 2018. It is at this time that the United States may put an end to special measures giving them temporary protected status over there. Returning to Haiti represents a huge insecurity for these people because conditions over there are often extremely difficult. That is why these refugee claimants deserve that we listen to what they have to say.

This widely covered arrival of refugee claimants crossing the border has also, apparently, given way to some insecurity within many Canadians. Many of our fellow citizens fear that their social benefits will be in danger by allowing these people to enter our country, because, during some time, these newcomers receive limited support from the state. Others fear they will lose their jobs or not find any, thinking these newcomers will take them. Even though these fears are largely unfounded, our co-citizens also deserve to be listened to with respect.

Many of us know the famous story of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, written in the 19th century. When he was a young adult, Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread. That act, of itself, is reprehensible. The baker deserves to be paid for his labor. We can therefore condemn Jean Valjean and say that justice has been done. But as we read the story, we discover that Jean Valjean stole that bread to feed his sister, who had recently been widowed, and her seven children. He was a pruner, a seasonal worker; and during the off-season, he could not find work. His nieces and nephews were hungry; he therefore stole some bread. By getting to know the character a bit more, with his story and the reasons that led to that act, we come to feel compassion for him.

All of us, before passing judgement, should we not go and meet the stranger who has just arrived, to listen and discover a bit more on his life? We would therefore see that he is not all that different from us. He too wants to work; he too wants to feed his family; he too wants to educate himself; he too wants stability and a better life for his children. Unfortunately, all those things we take for granted in Canada are very difficult, if not impossible at this time in Haiti.

Of course, we need to work towards creating the socio-political and economic conditions that would allow Haitians to live with dignity in their own country without being forced to find exile elsewhere. But that will take years and will demand changes; changes in our politics regarding international aid as well as at the level of the political and institutional leadership in Haiti itself. But until that time, we must expect that Haitians will look for a better life elsewhere. Can we really blame them? How many people from Atlantic Canada have gone to find work in the oil patches of Alberta in the past 50 years? How many Irish people came to Canada in the middle of the 19th century because they were starving to death in Ireland?

We often hear that “we cannot take on all of the world’s problems.” Fair enough. However, a few thousand people is far from being “all of the world’s problems”. Let’s keep a bit of perspective: Lebanon (a state of 4 million people) has welcomed 1 million Syrian refugees in the last few years. In 2001, close to 45,000 refugee claimants arrived in Canada; for 2017 (from January until June) we have a little more than 18,000. Therefore, everything is quite relative.

Maybe the fear of the refugee is not so much because he is different from us, with his customs, his culture, his religion… Maybe the fear of the refugee comes more from the fact that he reminds us of our own human fragility; that we ourselves could someday become homeless, exiled and in search of a refuge. Speak to Montrealers who were victims of the flooding this past spring or residents of Fort MacMurray who lost their houses in the forest fires last year. We could easily conclude that the situations of the refugee claimants, as well as the victims of floods and fires, that “they are not my problems!” But one day, each one of us risks being in a precarious situation. What then when the other tells us, “I’m sorry, but that is not my problem”? To ask that question, is to return to the foundation of our common humanity and to the essential links of solidarity that weave together a society.