April 4 marked the 26th anniversary of refugee rights day. In 1985, the verdict known as the Singh decision was delivered by the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the rights of refugee claimants in Canada to life, liberty and security of person. Before this, Canada's record for refugee rights was often regrettable.
Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre executive director Linda McKay-Panos said Canada has a very spotted history when it comes to refugee movements.
"There has been some very racist policies," she said. "The refugee act has to first and foremost recognize the lives of refugees."
A boat of 937 Jewish people set sail from Hamburg on May 15, 1939 to seek asylum from Nazi persecution. After arriving in many countries, including Canada, they were sent back where roughly 230 were killed. Only 5,000 Jewish refugees entered Canada during the Second World War, the lowest number of any western country. Canada's immigration policies have come far from the time of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, but McKay-Panos said Canada's refugee system still needs improvement.
Canada becomes home to 12,000 refugees each year from roughly 20 different countries.
Although Canada received a centennial medal in 2005 for providing refugees a safe haven, McKay-Panos said the country needs to re-examine its welcoming claim, especially in lieu of recent attempts to change policy.
"Bill C-49, Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act, introduced in October, proposes 15 days to make a full appeal on a refugee claim," said McKay-Panos. "It's just not practical, you can't do it in this time; it will make a mockery of the appeal system."
McKay-Panos said the proposal could have meant unsuccessful refugee applicants, including children, could be jailed.
McKay-Panos spoke at an event put on by Citizens for Social Justice, a student-run organization started in October by co-founder Heath McLeod.
"Bill C-49 about protecting Canada from human smugglers would have really negatively affected refugees and would have ended up creating a new class of refugee," said McLeod. "It would have most likely have passed if parliament didn't fall, creating a second-class refugee not a second-class citizen. They would be detained for a year, children detained separately with no access to health care."
With Parliament dissolved for the upcoming election, the bill died after its second hearing Nov. 9, 2010. Any attempt to put through a similar bill would need to start from scratch.
"Canadians expect this Parliament to take tough and reasonable action to stop human smuggling syndicates from targeting this country and treating it like a doormat," said Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney on March 25 during a debate in Parliament. "It is one of the reasons we have to pass Bill C-49, a strong but reasonable effort to stop the smuggling syndicates from targeting Canada, in order to deal with the human smugglers who are taking Canada for granted and violating the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act."
Calgary ethno-cultural council chair Hieu Van Ngo researches why certain youth are inclined to join gangs and preventative means to report at-risk individuals. His dissertation focuses mainly on criminal involvement of immigrant children.
"We have the infrastructure to move forward, but there has to be political leadership," he said. "The cost of ignoring human rights is much more than any means put forth to walk with them on their journey. People who come into Canada, but do not integrate, commit crime -- it costs Canada way more."
There are many organizations in place to help refugees adapt to Canada's lifestyle, such as the Resettlement Assistance Program and Calgary Catholic Immigrations Society. Refugees and immigrants can also be sponsored privately by family members. Alberta's resettlement and integration services coordinator Sultana Assar said that providing emotional, physical and mental support is extremely important in helping individuals overcome culture shock.
"There are 350 refugees destined to Calgary per year," she said. "After the first year has passed, we sit down and assess if they need further assistance for a second year. Before the system was based on who can settle in Canada the easiest; now it is based on who needs it the most, so this often includes very high needs individuals."
Assar said once refugees get to Canada they often believe their worries are over, but that is not the case. Many do not speak the language, have left their families behind and don't know how to live off a lump sum of federal money, typically just over $300 a month for living expenses, including rent.
According to Ngo, individuals who feel stereotyped or stigmatized are more likely to be attracted to gangs as a means to fit in, not only regarding immigrant youth, but also those born in Canada as part of a visible minority.
Ngo has been living in Canada since 1991. After leaving Vietnam in the early 1980s, he spent three years in a refugee camp in Thailand.
"My room was made of newspaper, rats would run amok -- the living condition was poor and isolated, but there was a lot of determination," Ngo said. "Refugees live with uncertainty. I saw people who lived in the camp for over 10 years, especially big families. A lot of countries are reluctant to take in big families."
Ngo said the exact number of immigrant youth who become involved in gangs or gang-related violence is unknown because Canada does not keep race-related crime statistics. He said a majority of immigrant youth don't become a part of gangs, but the system in place to help immigrant youth adapt to Canadian culture isn't sufficient.
"We have not achieved the maturity of looking at refugees as part of a human rights issue," Ngo said. "There needs to be a shift, help has to be long-term. Refugees do not stop their journey when they touch down in Canada. They can eventually become leaders in their own communities but that, at first, takes a lot of help from community members."
Ngo said proper support in schooling systems that cater to disadvantaged ethno-cultural learners is an important first-step for support of at-risk youth.
McLeod said one of his group's focuses has been showing students how to lobby government groups.
"We are a student group who noticed a deficiency in the faculty of social work in doing more community development work and to develop skills among students to do advocacy work," said McLeod.