Author: frb

Why are we here?

By Kieran Murphy

As our van pulled out of the airport and into the quiet streets of Winnipeg, the question my friends had been asking me for weeks slowly creeped into my mind: “why Winnipeg?” I had known since September I would be heading to the seventh largest city in Canada for my journalism class during fall break, but whenever anyone had asked me why we were going there, I had simply responded “to interview Syrian refugees.” Now, as I sat in the van passing Tim Hortons restaurants and gaudy advertisements for “South Beach Casino and Resort”, I began to consider the question myself. Surely there were areas outside of Manitoba that had Syrian refugees. And surely, Princeton was willing and able to take us places outside of rural Canada.

One possible answer, as we had learned in class, was that there exists a large Mennonite population outside of Winnipeg, in the tiny towns of Altona and Gretna, that has taken hundreds of Syrian refugees under their wings. Despite their religious differences, the Mennonites have created a place where the refugees could be comfortable living their lives and practicing their religion. By all accounts, this is a rare feat and dozens of potential stories could pop up interviewing both Mennonites and Syrians later this week.

However, giving the extreme scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, I had overlooked other issues of international migration that could be relevant to our class. One enormous issue brought up by our dinner guest, immigration lawyer Bashir Khan, was the flood of Haitian asylum seekers crossing the US-Canada border in Manitoba. These Haitian migrants knew that their temporary protected status in the United States would not be renewed, and are seeking refuge in Canada. Many go to Quebec, but those who are farther west cannot make the trek across the country. Rather, they are faced with the choice of entering the western or prairie provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. British Columbia is extremely mountainous and covered in dense forest, Khan explained, and asylum seekers don’t want to risk crossing a dangerous terrain. Alberta and Saskatchewan both have conservative governments that give no legal aid to asylum seekers. Manitoba is left as the province that has made it through the “grapevine” as the place to cross—it both is flat and offers legal aid to asylum seekers.  

With this interesting dynamic added, I’m looking forward to going to the border and the Canadian Human Rights Museum later this week to see how migration issues impact Winnipeg and Manitoba in particular. I’m also looking forward to seeing if the people in Manitoba have adjusted a more pro-refugee slant, having had the opportunity to meet refugees, or if their interaction has spurred resentment among the locals.

Canada: an imperfect haven for refugees

By Tobias Stoner

Bashir Khan believes that “Canada has lost its way in the world.” As an immigration lawyer, he sees this most clearly in his work for refugees making asylum claims, and the obstacles they face to legal status. He frames the problem, however, as stemming from a broader sense of confusion about Canadian identity since the end of the Cold War.

Canada likes to think of itself as morally superior to the United States in many ways, Mr. Khan says, and to some extent he agrees. Faced with an applicant for asylum who has already been rejected in the US, his legal strategy is to “put the US justice system on trial” by highlighting how it failed to protect his clients’ rights. Nonetheless, he does not romanticize the Canadian asylum process. Difficulties, he says, trace back to Canada’s recent transition toward a multi-racial state, and were further exacerbated by several terms of Conservative government under Stephen Harper. Now, says Khan, the institutions and political will necessary for a good system will require at least another 5-year term of liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to restore.

The story really begins, Khan argues, with Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau. As Prime Minister in the 70’s and 80’s the elder Mr. Trudeau opened Canada to large-scale immigration by non-whites without, says Khan, a broader national conversation or mandate for such a change. The country has navigated between the poles of nativism and hospitality ever since.

Canada’s asylum system is, in many respects, more generous that the United States’. During the Cold War, it saw refugee admissions as a key to “punching above its weight” on the world stage in the west’s fight against communism, says journalist Deborah Amos. Since then, however, Mr. Khan says, the rationale for accepting refugees has become less clear, and public support has dwindled. For years, Canada asked the US for a mutual agreement to automatically return asylum seekers crossing their border, similar to Europe’s requirement that refugees apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter. In 2004, Canada won that concession, with a few exceptions, as part of a range of agreements negotiated after the 9/11 attacks. Asylum claims on the US border decreased 90%, says Mr. Khan.

Even today, though, 90% of asylum applicants in Canada whose claims were previously rejected in the US are accepted here, he says, noting that “US immigration judges are notorious” for failing to grant such claims. Despite this, several serious problems with the Canadian system still remain, in Mr. Khan’s view. One is the lack of formal court trials for asylum applicants. While many provinces, unlike the US, offer free legal aid to asylum seekers, they appear before administrative immigration board members, only 10% of whom are required to have legal training, Mr. Khan explains. The board members run the hearing on the “Continental inquisitorial model,” he says, in which they ask questions to examine the case rather than letting a lawyer present the claimants arguments. Further compounding the problem, he argues, is the fact that many board members are former border agents installed as permanent judges by the outgoing conservative government. If the board member is trying to trip up or undermine a claimant’s testimony, he says, that’s a very bad sign for their case.

Ultimately, he says, a liberal government will need to remain in power long enough to replace many of those board members, while also navigating shifting public appetite for assimilating new arrivals. Mr. Khan is a realist: refugee policy, he says, will always be a small piece in a practical foreign policy, whose broader interests will dominate.

No one leaves home unless home chases you

By Ferdose Idris

“No one leaves home unless home chases you” – Warsan Shire

This is a statement that challenges our very notion of immigration. When speaking with Bashir A. Khan this evening, a Barrister and Solicitor practicing in immigration and refugee law, this was a topic we touched on.  As children of the great western nations of The United States and Canada, we tend to have an arrogance about us. ‘Of course people want to move to our country and prosper’, ‘of course they want the same rights and privileges afforded to us’. But we sometimes forget that most people don’t want to move. Migrating can be a burden, to leave your social networks and all that is familiar for an unknown future can be challenging. Mr. Khan mentioned this realization when he discussed a recent trip to Sri Lanka.  He saw “the poorest of the poor” content with what they had.

This phenomenon explains the recent decline in asylum seekers from the US to Canada. During the early months of this year, Canada experienced a large influx of asylum seekers from the United States to Canada. However, by late April, Canada experienced a significant decline and since August has experiences little to no USA à Canada asylum seeker. Earlier in the year, when the response of the Trump administration was unknown and anti-immigrant and refugee sentiments were high, the climate of fear lead to a dramatic increase in asylum seekers from the US to Canada. However, once there were not significant changes to immigrants already in the US (not new refugee status seekers) or mass deportations, people were less inclined to make the dramatic decision to move to Canada. This can potentially be explained by the difficulty in moving from an established, albeit precarious, existence in the United States to an unknown reception in Canada.

What I found especially interesting was the message that Canada was sending to Central American migrants. Canada rejects over 90 percent of Central American migrants claims of refugee status. This being one of the largest immigrant groups in the United States, Canada has set a clear precedence that there migrants are not welcome.

I also found the immigration judiciary system fascinating and counter intuitive.

Canadian refugee claimants, after attaining UN blue cards (which signify accepted refugee status) face a secondary vetting process similar to that of the United States. However these courts are not run by adjudicators but rather are run by a board. Only 10 percent of the board members are required to be members of a bar association. These board members take on the role of an inquisitor and generally steer the line of questioning in immigration cases. Defendants are compelled to answer any question this board puts forth and do not have the right to deny a response on the ground of self-incrimination. In addition, the full rules of evidence do not apply. Mr. Khan labeled this process “fast and furious justice” (check this quote on recording). And yet, regardless of these potential challenges to refugee claims, 90% of people rejected in the United States immigration court are accepted in Canada. Why? Mr. Khan puts forth that this could be used to the more stringent interpretation of immigration law in the United States in comparison to Canada’s more flexible interpretation.

Of course everybody wants to come here

By Allison Light

“It’s gonna take a while for Canada to be the generous liberal Canada it once was,” said Mr. Khan, the Immigration and Refugee Law Barrister and Solicitor. This stuck with me as an overall takeaway from our dinner conversation – that on this trip we may not find exactly the forever-immigration-friendly northern neighbor we might’ve arrived expected. He explained that Canada, like the US and other Western countries, is currently drifting towards the right – going through a “big change in its identity,” as he put it.

One of the points he made about the issue of all the Haitians crossing over stuck with me, which is the line drawn between refugee/human rights work and compassionate humanitarian aid. Since their original displacement was due to natural disaster, they are not qualified for refugee status, in the same way that conditions of poverty in Central America aren’t officially grounds for their resettlement as refugees either. A country can’t offer another country’s population protection from poverty or disaster, but can from civil war and specific persecution. But what’s the difference, if both groups’ lives are constantly on the brink of ruin?

While talking about that number after dinner, we couldn’t help but think: of course people are coming here, of course they’ll keep coming as TPS runs out for selected populations next year. With numbers like that? We would try too. It reminds me of the mare nostrum conundrum, where refugees would of course attempt to cross the Mediterranean when they thought there was someone waiting on the other side to help. Then again, we’ve also seen multiple narratives where people crossed knowing their chances were slim to none – the story about Bambino, for example, where 500 men threw themselves at a fence hoping one might successfully make it across. Maybe that’s a better representation of the experience of the Central American applicants he mentioned, with a 95% rejection rate but with at least some who will still continue to try.

The conversation made me realize that I need to understand a little bit better how my own country deals with resettlement claims and asylum seekers in order to fully appreciate how Canada’s system differs. The picture Mr. Khan painted of this video-chat where a refugee’s fate is determined by a board one province over (a board that doesn’t even have to consist of mostly lawyers) was fascinating, and so different from my understanding of how the US does it. I predict that I’ll learn as much about how US resettlement works as how Canadian resettlement works on this trip.

Shaping the refugee narrative

By Francesca Billington

Refugee lawyers providing free legal aid in Canada (responsible only for 13 hours of aid for each client) are tasked with the challenge of learning the emotional stories of asylum seekers and refugees. For their court hearings, refugees will be asked to explain why they should be granted refugee protection status. Sometimes, this means multiple painstaking sessions of back and forth conversations between the lawyer and refugee, said to Bashir Khan, an immigration and refugee lawyer who was our guest at dinner on our first night in Winnipeg. He explained the slow and difficult process of identifying and constructing these narratives—not to mention the hours of practice he takes clients through to prepare them for unexpected questions they might be asked by board members at their court hearings. Often, they’ll be asked questions intended to stump them, to disprove their reasons for needing asylum and protected status.

Refugees in Canada are granted asylum or protection as a government-assisted refugee (GAR) or a privately sponsored refugee (PSR), who are funded either by religious or secular groups. Refugees who receive government assistance are selected by the government. While refugees can apply for asylum and receive multiple court hearings in the U.S., Canada has a policy that states refugees can apply only once; around 90% of refugees who are denied protection in the U.S. are then granted protection in Canada, Khan said. A lot of this has to do with how the United States interprets the law, a less liberal understanding of facts. Refugees do not have to change their narratives upon arriving the Canada, unless new developments have arisen and they want to report additional details. I’m curious to learn how differences in American and Canadian politics and legal interpretations contribute to this statistic, and whether these interpretations have changed since the Trump administration took office.

Khan said that in one case, he was able to help Venezuelan family present their case for prosecution because of their religion as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Without this factor, Khan might not have been able to find a way for them to be granted asylum. For several other cases, religious prosecution provides an angle for a family’s narrative. He only spoke about cases that worked in the favor of refugees, but I imagine there must be instances in which lawyers cannot find adequate “proof”, or times when hearings do not go as well as planned. How is the way the four University of Manitoba law students help refugees their  construct narratives  at the Welcome Place resettlement organization differ from the way legal aids do this same work? Do they follow the same structure in writing the narratives, and what do they do if they are sure that a story might not be persuasive enough for the courts?

American Woman, Stay Away From Me

By Maddy Pauchet

Bashir A. Khan takes occasional sips from his cranberry juice, lime wedge, no ice. He pulls out a dozen business cards. “I want to be of service,” he says. “If you have any questions, please contact me.”

We do have questions—many, in fact, that he fields tirelessly, weaving in history lessons and anecdotes about his work. Khan is a lawyer who works in Winnipeg, Manitoba practicing immigration and refugee law.

Khan explains that Manitoba sees much more crossover of its border than its neighboring province, Saskatchewan. Though both are flat, open prairies that could easily be breached by asylum seekers, there exists one difference that explains why Manitoba is a much more desired location: Saskatchewan offers no legal aid to asylum seekers, while Manitoba provides up to thirteen hours of legal counsel. Khan says that thirteen hours is shortsighted. “I’ll usually work on a single case anywhere between twenty-eight to thirty-five hours.” While Khan does not receive compensation for these hours of work, he explains that he finds it fulfilling. “There are no incentives to do pro bono work,” Khan says of Canada’s legal system. In contrast, in the United States, the American Bar Association recommends that lawyers do fifty hours of pro bono service each year.

One of Khan’s more controversial opinions has to do with the Trump administration’s responsibility for the exodus of asylum-seekers from the United States to Canada. “Trump has nothing to do with the exodus,” he affirms. While he does not see the United States political administrations as the driving force pushing refugees toward Canada, he does take issue with some of the existing American policies. “The United States does not provide refugees with any legal counsel. Trump has not altered the system—it was already broken.”

Khan owns up to what he terms “cultural arrogance.” Laughing, he says that he looks at the United States, at its gun problems and problematic policies, and thinks to himself, “We’re a better country.” But in recent years, after trips to Southeast Asia, Khan says he has become more compassionate. “People don’t want to leave their home, uproot themselves and come here to an uncertain future.”

He describes Canadian nationalistic thought as defined in contrast to the United States. He quotes Lenny Kravitz’s song: “American women, stay away from me.”

“That’s the key to the Canadian identity!” says Khan, though he owns up to a history of poor race relations, nine years of a conservative government that undid many progressive immigrations policies, and existing anti-immigration and anti-refugee political factions that are gaining ground.

Khan, though jovial, is not optimistic about Canada’s political future, which he predicts will turn conservative. “Canada has lost its place in the world.”

On the Bus

By Rose Gilbert

My first glimpses of Winnipeg through the bus windows confirmed what I had learned in class: it’s a multicultural city, shaped by the contributions of immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds. A German grocery advertising sausage — “Our WURST is the BEST!!” —  abuts Dr. Lin Liu’s Eastern Healing Center. Enrico’s Cooling Services on Queen Street flies South African, Canadian, and Italian flags side by side from its roof. Advertisements for the Gupta Eye Centre pop up on billboards, benches, and bus stops. These businesses are highly visible testaments to the presence and entrepreneurial success of Winnipeg’s many immigrant communities, each of which represent different waves of migration in Canadian history. They also raise questions about how the city will handle the nation’s current debate about immigrants, refugees, and “queue-jumpers.” Manitoba province (in which Winnipeg is the only major population center) contains the greatest number of people who arrived in the country within the past year, and the second greatest number of people who arrived in the country in the past five years. How do these new arrivals’ experience differ from that of their predecessors, and has Canadian willingness to welcome them dwindled?

Canada’s highly publicized acceptance of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees provided a welcome contrast to the Trump campaign’s — a later, administration’s — harsh position on all migration. Like Germany, Canada seemed to be emerging as a global defender of human rights, a nation that would welcome the refugees no one else would. But, also like Germany, Canada has experienced backlash when the flow of migrants didn’t stop.

“Canadian values are changing,” said immigration lawyer Bashir A. Khan. Khan added that the public is becoming more right-wing and less supportive of immigration. In particular, many Canadians have begun to turn against asylum-seekers illegally crossing the border from the U.S., denigrating them as “queue-jumpers” stealing places from more deserving refugees patiently waiting their turn to enter the country through proper channels. Khan said that the term “queue-jumper” originates from Australia’s policy of subtracting the number of irregular arrivals from the quota of refugees they plan to accept each year. Therefore, asylum-seekers who arrive illegally take a spot away from someone else who is waiting to be granted asylum. Khan said that since Canada’s immigration policy doesn’t work this way, the term “queue-jumper” is a “misnomer” that decreases support for asylum-seekers fleeing the U.S., like Haitians fearing deportation after the end of TPS.

But Canadian reluctance to accept asylum-seekers at their U.S. border predates this year’s surge of Haitians by more than three decades. The Canadian government had tried to get the U.S. to sign a Safe Third Country Agreement, which states that asylum-seekers and refugees must file their claims in the first safe country they arrive in, for thirty years before finally succeeding in the aftermath of 9/11. Though both countries are parties to this treaty, the flow of asylum-seekers between the U.S. and Canada is almost entirely one-sided, meaning that the agreement’s real function is to get the U.S. to police Canada’s only land border. Canada has never unreservedly welcomed migration, but Winnipeg’s vibrant and diverse immigrant communities have endured anyways.


By Nicholas Wu

The first thing we saw when we arrived in the customs and immigration section of the Winnipeg airport was a sign for a beach. In friendly, slightly kitschy text with a cartoon dolphin, it welcomed us to Winnipeg and invited us to the “South Beach Hotel and Casino.” All were confused, having just felt a blast of cold air as we stepped off the jetway. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, but it was still 30 degrees outside with gray cloudy skies. Where in the freezing cold could a beach possibly be?

Passing through the airport, we noticed the prominent placement of other signs advertising the South Beach Hotel and Casino. As we discussed the potential location of the beach among the group, poking gentle fun at the province and the delusion of a beach amid the frozen weather, one of the border control agents shot us a dirty look. Perhaps he knew where the beach was. Perhaps he was annoyed at the loud group of American students that would make his job more difficult. Perhaps he was just cold. Who knows. But we were still starting off on our journalism trip here in Winnipeg, and the fact remained that none of us knew that much about what was to come in Winnipeg.

Our dinner later that night was with Bashir Khan, an immigration lawyer based in Winnipeg who represented a lot of refugee and asylum cases. What emerged during the conversation was less a question of what to ask and more what we really didn’t know about the refugee and asylee situation in Winnipeg. Among other things, we found that the rosy, liberal vision of Canada that so many Americans idolized was rapidly changing. Khan described a general conservative backlash and change in Canadian values that significantly changed the refugee program under the premiership of Stephen Harper and threatened to eliminate the refugee program under Justin Trudeau. For as much as Canadians liked to present themselves as the tolerant North American nation, in contrast with what they saw as a racially discordant and dysfunctional America, the reality was actually something much different.

He also described the disparity in treatment of asylum cases between provinces, something surprising to many of us in the group given the federal policy control over immigration. Many asylees decided to go to Manitoba instead of Saskatchewan or other provinces because Manitoba provided free legal aid for asylees. That said, unlike in the United States, where lawyers could earn the CLE credits necessary to maintain their job as a lawyer, Canada had no such system, which significantly limited the number of Canadian pro bono attorneys who were willing to take on immigrant cases.

So, after six hours or so in Winnipeg, I’m reminded of a famous quote from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the “known knowns” and the “unknown unknowns.” We know that we’re exploring the migration crisis and the process of resettlement here in Winnipeg. But the actual stories we might find? Those are perhaps as unknown as the location of the beach.

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