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Nothing safe about the U.S. for Central American refugees

By Jim Creskey      

Their fear of not receiving a fair and compassionate hearing is getting them to think that El Norte now means Canada. But Canada needs a refugee determination system that works.

Karen Spring's husband, Edwin Espinal, was arrested in Honduras in January after protesting the outcome of the country's recent elections. His case should remind us how bad things really are in our own hemisphere, writes Jim Creskey. The Hill Times photograph by Shruti Shekar
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The recent visit of Canadian human rights worker Karen Spring to Ottawa as she attempted to convince Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to go to bat for her imprisoned human rights advocate husband, Edwin Espinal, should remind us how bad things really are in our own hemisphere.

Espinal has been locked up in a military prison in Honduras since January for simply protesting the outcome of that country’s controversial election. Others continue to receive death threats for their dissent.

Activists for Indigenous rights and the environment (often the same in a country where Indigenous farmland is regularly overrun by sweetheart mining or industrial deals) are threatened or murdered when they refuse to go silent.

Privileged citizens of Honduras who have their own drivers or gated communities can expect to live in some safety. Ordinary citizens, especially poor Hondurans, can expect to be extorted and murdered if they don’t comply with protection payments imposed by criminal gangs that operate more or less with impunity.

Taxi drivers and store owners are forced to pay an impuesto de guerra, a so-called war tax, to gangs and sometimes to corrupt police. Girls are kidnapped from their school yards and forced into sexual slavery. A U.S State Department report from 2016 describes Honduras as, “a destination for child sex tourists from Canada and the United States … there were reports of child sex trafficking victims being brought into prisons and exploited by prisoners, raising concerns over the potential complicity of prison authorities. Overall corruption remained a challenge for law enforcement efforts. Prosecutors reported some local police provided protection to brothel owners or tipped them off about impending raids, and security officials have been involved in child sex trafficking.”

Honduran activist Edwin Espinal, before he was put in jail in January. Photograph courtesy of Karen Spring

The police, even when they are honest, are simply unable to carry out competent investigations or protect threatened citizens. I found that out myself in 2014 when I went to Honduras as a volunteer investigator into the assassination of journalists for PEN Canada.

The national government’s response to this state of chaos has been to bring down the military hammer, with the support of the United States. The result is a disastrous rise in extrajudicial murders.

Looking south from America’s back porch, you survey a world of trouble. Homicidal violence is painfully common in Guatemala and El Salvador as well as Honduras. Even in Mexico, which has visa-free access to Canada, the government is often unable to protect its citizens. In several high-profile cases the Mexican government has not even been capable of protecting its own law enforcement officers and court officials from criminal violence.

Traditionally there has been an escape route to the United States, El Norte.

Fraught with danger and sometimes resulting in extreme exploitation once a refugee arrived in the U.S., it was still a sanctuary. But that bridge has now been blown by the Trump administration.

Anna Neistat, Amnesty International’s senior research director, wondered in a recent Hill Times interview whether the United States is still a safe third country, as defined by international refugee law. The answer is no for many people who most need asylum.

Inconceivably, Donald Trump’s Homeland Security Department has said it wants to consider Mexico a safe third country so that the U.S. can legally refuse any genuine asylum seeker turning up at the border.

As parts of eastern Europe drift toward the extreme right, demonizing minorities and especially refugees to advance authoritarian aims, there is increasing anxiety that the United States is slipping in the same direction.

For Central Americans who have already found their way into the U.S., their fear of not receiving a fair and compassionate hearing is getting them to think that El Norte now means north of the 49th parallel.

Nearly 1,500 Mexican citizens made refugee claims last year, according to Global News. “Three-quarters of the Mexican refugee claims that were heard by the Refugee Board in 2017 were either rejected, abandoned, or withdrawn. Only 25 per cent were accepted.”

Excuse me, only 25 per cent were accepted? If all the Mexican claims from last year were processed, that means Canada saved 375 lives. That’s a remarkably praiseworthy effort.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel has repeatedly criticized the Trudeau government for its overtaxed refugee system. Unfortunately, she, like her former prime minister, Stephen Harper, is fairly transparent about the solution: simply turn more refugees back, or force them through refugee-camp checkpoints on the other side of the world. God forbid that some refugees arrive in Canada out of desperation on their own two feet.

But she is right about one thing. Canada needs a fair and competent immigration and refugee determination mechanism. The wait times are too long and the fallacy of a safe third country agreement with the United States stresses the system even further by forcing would-be refugees to avoid crossing at regular border station.

By suspending the agreement with the U.S. until, say, the next U.S. presidential election in 2020, Canada would send a message to asylum seekers: expect to have your claims processed according to the rule of law at safe, controlled border crossings.

Forcing a claimant to drag a suitcase down a back road in Quebec or a field in Manitoba makes for inefficient and hasty processing. It also creates an incendiary image that plays into the kind of prejudice that feeds right-wing extremism.

Jim Creskey is a publisher of The Hill Times.

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