Immigration/Refugee Controversy

The frightened passengers crammed into the bow of the fishing trawler peered through the grey mist, anxious for their first glimpse of Canada. As large swells lifted the ship, the towering cedar forests and granite cliffs of the Queen Charlotte Islands suddenly loomed out of the morning fog. The air force had been tracking the vessel and its cargo of 131 Chinese refugees for two days. Desperate to escape, the ship's Korean captain finally nosed it on to the rocky driftwood-strewn coast and ordered his human cargo, dressed in light summer clothes, over the side. As they scrambled ashore, worried mothers held their children, some as young as 8, to shield them against the mist and rain. Others, fighting off the numbing cold and fatigue, came close to collapse - but all somehow had survived 58 gruelling days at sea in appalling conditions. The following day, as they arrived in Port Hardy on the north coast of Vancouver Island, logger Jerry Higginson greeted them with a squeaky version of O Canada on his trumpet. "We have the greatest country in the world," said Higginson. "Who can blame them for wanting to come here?"

Many did. While Higginson's generous view is widely shared, the newcomers - the second such landing on B.C. shores this summer - triggered a fierce debate over Canada's open-door REFUGEE policy, which critics say extends a virtual invitation to illegal migrants. The debate is about to grow even more intense. Late last week, as the refugees were being transferred by bus to CFB Esquimalt, near Victoria, the military was on alert for more boatloads of Chinese migrants. Canadian intelligence officials were tracking a fishing boat bound for Canada's East Coast - also carrying hundreds of Chinese - that reportedly left Lithuania in early August. Meanwhile, U.S. immigration agents discovered another 132 illegal Chinese in the hold of a freighter docked in Savannah, Ga., that had just arrived from Lithuania. And the U.S. Coast Guard announced that it had boarded a suspicious cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean near the Mariana Islands, an American protectorate south of Japan. Onboard they discovered 100 Chinese migrants, many of whom said they were trying to reach Vancouver.

Opponents of Canada's refugee system, such as Reform party immigration critic Leon Benoit, contend that Canada is known as a soft touch - where virtually anyone can easily claim refugee status. As if to underscore his charge, on Aug. 9 two Tanzanians jumped from a cargo ship into the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. Minutes later, CANADIAN COAST GUARD officers rescued the men, who were quickly released after being examined in hospital. Their names were added to the growing number of people claiming refugee status, which has jumped from 12,091 people seeking asylum in 1989 to 23,838 in 1998.

Canada's current refugee policy has been in place for 49 years. Immediately on arrival a claimant can ask for refugee status. Smugglers often coach migrants on what to say and how to react when filing a claim. Once that claim is made, the newcomer is allowed to work, get free medical care and apply for social assistance while awaiting a process that can take months or, more likely, years.

Many Canadians found it galling that only 37 of 123 who arrived from China by boat in July were still being held late last week, suspected of smuggling. Those set free are now looking for work, and in some cases, have started applying for social assistance. Some Chinese who came to Canada legally are outraged that the refugees are being welcomed. "The law should change," said Derick Cheng, honorary chairman of the Vancouver-based Canadian Fujian Friendship Association. "The smugglers are challenging the judicial system of the country."

Benoit argues that unless the laws are toughened, thousands more will attempt to sneak through the back door of the IMMIGRATION system. "MPs on the coast have just been flooded with complaints," he said. "To a person, they are saying we can't be seen as an easy target." But defenders of the system argue that it is a shining example of Canada's humanity, and that the often-lengthy process is necessary to ensure that genuine refugees get a chance to prove their cases. "I hear the Reform party ripping their hair out," says Victor Wong, executive director of the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians. "What is it about these people that triggers this kind of visceral reaction? Is it because they all came at once on a boat, don't speak English and have yellow skin? We have to let the process play itself out."

The issue is likely to get more intense as the world's population, now crossing the six-billion mark, expands ever more rapidly. As people become increasingly desperate to escape impoverished lands, vast numbers of so-called economic refugees are willing to risk their lives to get to a rich country. Sometimes, Canada is only a stop on the way. American authorities are complaining about the increasing numbers of Mexican illegals who fly to Canada and then walk back across the relatively unguarded Canadian border. U.S. officials see a huge potential problem on the B.C. coast. "This is just the beginning," says Eugene Davis, deputy chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in Blaine, Wash. "I wonder how many other ships have come in that nobody's seen."

As the pressure mounts, the federal government hopes to patch up the system by making it harder to smuggle humans into the country. Last week, newly appointed Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan, who is from multiethnic Toronto, said she planned to put more resources into the interception of illegal migrants, raise the penalty for smuggling and lock up suspect migrants rather than allowing them to go free while awaiting a hearing. But she rejected any suggestion that people like those who came ashore in the Queen Charlottes should be returned home without a hearing. "Canadians value human life," Caplan told Maclean's. "We mustn't do anything that would cause a tragic result - even if our laws are not being respected."

The latest debate over just how many rights refugees should enjoy began in earnest on July 19, when the RCMP stopped the first ship, which was in appalling condition, and towed it to shore in Port Hardy. Then early last month, authorities received a tip from international intelligence sources that a second ship was going to try to drop its human cargo off Canada's west coast. Long-range Aurora patrol aircraft finally spotted the ship on Aug. 9 in international waters, 330 km off the Queen Charlottes. The ship's captain, realizing he had been discovered, led authorities on a cat-and-mouse chase.

The coast guard dispatched the patrol cutter Tanu, carrying 12 immigration officers, eight RCMP and a team of translators the following day to intercept the vessel. But the Korean ship's captain eluded detection just long enough to order his passengers ashore at about 11:30 a.m. on the rocky, windswept shore in Gilbert Bay, the most southerly point in the Queen Charlottes.

The refugees, who had spent their last two days at sea without food or water, had no idea where they were. Some of the men scouted for a road out of the wilderness, while others huddled for warmth by bonfires. Hours later, they jumped up and waved at two search planes that finally appeared overhead. While the group was being cared for, an air force Aurora radioed the escaping trawler to turn back. To the Canadians' surprise, it complied. After a heavily armed RCMP team aboard the force's patrol boat Inkster finally caught up with the smugglers, they were arrested and charged with aiding a group of people to enter the country illegally and causing a person to disembark at sea. Using helicopters, rescuers also rounded up almost 12 stragglers who had fled into the dense bush. According to the RCMP, some of those who tried to hide were among 18 gang enforcers who travelled with the migrants. And as the relieved refugees arrived in Port Hardy, most looked dazed but happy - and some even seemed to be chuckling as they were led ashore.

Like the refugees on the earlier ship, the group plucked from the shores of the Queen Charlottes was also from China's Fujian province, which sits across from Taiwan about halfway between Hong Kong to the south and Shanghai to the north. The Fujianese have a long tradition of going abroad to start new lives, and they are not alone in their seaborne quest to create a new home in Canada. In 1986, 152 Sri Lankans were rescued from two lifeboats off the Newfoundland coast, and in 1987, 173 Sikhs from India arrived in Nova Scotia by freighter.

Then, as now, there were cries to toughen the refugee system. International authorities, however, say the refugee-smuggling business has become much more sophisticated. Jim Fisher, an Asian crime expert with the Ottawa-based Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, an information-gathering organization, says that Fujianese have become a key part of the effort to smuggle Chinese to the West. Experts believe that last year alone, nearly 100,000 people were smuggled overseas from China, the majority of them from Fujian province. According to the Geneva-based International Organization of Migration, the illegal trade in humans generated about $180 million for foreign smugglers targeting Canada last year. To pay the smuggler's fee, often $57,000 or more, many migrants agree to become virtual slaves. Their contracts are sold to employers, such as restaurant owners, who pay the new arrivals a subsistence wage until the debt is discharged. Some must work as prostitutes or drug runners to pay back the money.

While much of the current debate is fuelled by the high-profile boat people, most phoney refugees from China - and other places - come in by plane. Renald Gilbert, an official at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing, says migrants fly out of China using fake visas, or altered ones, perhaps carrying the passport of a well-travelled businessman. On the plane, Gilbert says, the documents are destroyed or turned over to another smuggler so they can be used again. Nearly 5,000 people claimed refugee status at Canadian airports last year.

Two women from a tiny village in Fujian told Maclean's about a harrowing attempt they made to get to the United States after being flown to Toronto by smugglers earlier this year. Authorities arrested Yanhua Wang, 24, and Meiling Zheng, 29, in January as they tried to cross the U.S. border near Buffalo, where they were found in a wooden box bolted under a transport truck. Zheng said she hoped to join her husband who had been working illegally in New York City for six years, while Wang said she wanted to escape political persecution in her homeland. "Almost every household in Fujian has someone in their family being smuggled abroad," said Wang. "If you don't have a family member in a foreign country, people think there is something wrong."

The pair paid almost $47,000 apiece to a so-called snakehead, the point man who recruits people to be smuggled abroad. "The snakeheads are very powerful," said Wang cautiously. "We don't want to put the lives of our family at risk by revealing too many details." Landing in Toronto, Wang and Zheng declared refugee status and then were taken by the smugglers to the U.S. border area and ordered to crawl under the truck. "The winds were cutting my face," said Zheng. "My whole body was shaking." Their lives were probably saved when an immigration official spotted hair dangling from the undercarriage.

Zheng and Wang were among the few to be caught. Nearly half of 1,494 refugee claims made last year by Chinese nationals were abandoned after they disappeared, likely into the United States. "They go out the front door and into the U.S.," said Don Gracey, a Toronto immigration consultant who helped prepare a report on immigration for the Senate early this year. "Or they're taken into downtown Toronto or Montreal and given over to restaurant owners or brothels."

It is, of course, not only the Chinese who use the refugee system to get into the country. In July, police in Ontario charged 59 people who brought dozens of women to the province. The accused had advertised in Hungary, Mexico, Thailand and China for people to work as dancers in strip clubs. Police say the organizers told the victims to get rid of all personal documents before landing at Pearson International Airport, where they claimed refugee status.

But by far most would-be refugees simply appear at Canadian entry points along the 49th parallel. "They come to the border asking for asylum," says Richard Saint-Louis, a Montreal-based adviser to Immigration Canada. "They could be from Algeria, Sri Lanka or many other countries. A lot of them say they could claim refugee status in the United States, but they prefer the way Canada deals with refugees."

The protections Canada, and most other Western countries, extend to refugees stem from the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees that Canada signed in 1951. The treaty was created following the Second World War during which many countries, including Canada, turned away thousands of Jews. In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada enshrined the rules for refugees when it ruled that everyone who reaches Canada has the right to make an immigration case and is fully protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Still, the Reform party's Benoit argues that few countries appear to have interpreted the UN convention as broadly as Canada. For example, female refugees entering Canada can claim gender persecution (such as China's one-child policy) or homosexuals can argue that they are being threatened in their home countries because of their sexual orientation. By comparison, France restricts its definition of refugee to someone fleeing state-sponsored violence.

The United States and Australia have also faced waves of illegals (140 suspected illegal immigrants from Iraq reached Australia's Christmas Island late last week), but their refugee systems are far more rigorous than Canada's. Australia regularly detains boat people and makes a quick assessment of their eligibility to lodge a refugee claim. About 80 per cent of the 540 boat people who arrived in 1997 and 1998 were returned to their country of origin (usually China). In most cases, the deportations took place within weeks of arrival in Australia. Canberra has also beefed up its airport immigration scrutiny and in July created a new criminal classification for anyone organizing the illegal entry of five or more people. Those convicted face a 20-year sentence and a fine of $220,000.

As last week's boarding of the freighter in the Pacific demonstrated, the United States tries to head off immigrants before they make their claim by intercepting them in international waters. Two teams of agents usually go aboard - one to investigate a possible crime, the other to interview and screen those aboard to determine if any have a credible refugee claim. If they don't, they are returned to their country of origin.

Washington put the emphasis on keeping illegals out of the country because once they get ashore they must be dealt with under regulations that are similar to those in Canada. They must be either detained or released pending a refugee hearing. Because of the possibility they may disappear, though, U.S. officials are more likely to keep in detention members of an organized group such as the Chinese in the Queen Charlottes. In such a case, said Blaine's Davis, "most likely they'd be held and we'd try to expedite the legal process and return them to China."

To Toronto Conservative Senator William Kelly, the flood of migrants into Canada is out of control. Kelly chaired the Senate committee that reported on illegal immigration in January. The committee's research revealed that government officials had no idea where many of the people who have declared refugee status end up. "The Immigration Act has got to be revised because the problem is much larger than anyone wants to admit," says Kelly. "The difficulty is every time someone tries to raise the issue, they are accused of being racist."

Kelly said the Canadian government could follow the stricter route taken by other countries, such as Australia. Benoit would go further. While not fully embracing the American policy of boarding ships in international waters, he says it is one of many options that should be examined.

While declining that option, Caplan does promise to take tougher action. Proposed changes to the Immigration Act could include beefing up interception of illegal migrants and stiffer penalties for smugglers, including allowing the government to seize their property. She also wants the hearing process - currently averaging 11 months - to be brought down to six months. "We don't know the status of those people," she says. "The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that anyone in Canada - and I would add that includes everyone in Canadian waters - can make a refugee claim."

Still, the overall fairness of the system is a key point for immigrants who arrived in the conventional way. "I think Canada has made its refugee policy much too liberal, and the immigration policy much too tight," says Wilfred Wan, chairman of Vancouver-based Success, a group helping immigrants to settle. "The system encourages illegal entries, and we are going to see more." If that happens, the debate will continue to rage as refugees arrive on Canada's rocky shores.

How to Become a Refugee in Canada

THE APPLICATION

On arrival in Canada, a newcomer can ask to claim refugee status. Some get a questionnaire to mail in to Immigration Canada, others are interviewed immediately. Those without documents can be detained until they establish who they are. But unless they are found to have a serious criminal record, to pose a security risk (e.g., a terrorist background) or to have previously been ordered deported, the claim is passed to the independent Immigration and Refugee Board for a hearing. At this point, the claimant is eligible for medical care and social assistance, and can work in Canada.

Elapsed time: a few hours to 28 days

THE HEARING

When the IRB hearing comes up, claimants - normally aided by a lawyer - explain why they fled their country. Under UN guidelines, they must show they have grounds to fear persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. If the board - usually two people - agrees, the claimant can apply for permanent residency within 180 days of receiving a written decision.

Elapsed time: three to 18 months

THE APPEALS

If the IRB says no, claimants must leave the country within 30 days or face arrest and deportation - unless they appeal. Within 15 days, they can apply for a review in the Federal Court, which can order a new IRB hearing. Concurrently, they can ask for reconsideration by a special unit of Immigration Canada. In some cases - notably when marrying a Canadian citizen or resident - they can apply to stay permanently on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. If all of these fail, they are again told, by mail, that they must leave Canada within 30 days. But unless they record their exit under a voluntary procedure, Immigration Canada has no way of knowing whether they have left.

Elapsed time: three months to (very rarely) 10 years or more

Maclean's August 23, 1999