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What more will it take?

    Thursday, January 31, 2019 - 10:04
    Mexico USA border wall with barbed wire at top

    Amnesty International Canada Secretary General Alex Neve is currently part of a delegation of senior Amnesty leadership who are visiting the Mexico/USA border to witness the impacts of US policy on migrants and asylum seekers.|

    El Paso, Texas

    So many times over the past two years, since Donald Trump’s presidency and assault on the rights of refugees and migrants began, I have asked myself: what more will it take for the Canadian government to agree that the United States is not “safe” when it comes to refugee protection?

    And while I do not have the answer yet, as the accounts of utter contempt for international obligations and the lack of even a minimal sense of compassion mounted during our visit to Tijuana, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez this week, as a Canadian I felt a deepening sense of shame that this remains an open question.

    What more will it take?

    That question was on my mind as more than twenty advocates from four organizations and at least six different countries came together as a protective force to accompany three LGBT teens from Honduras to the border, in their effort to lodge asylum claims with US officials. Their courage was immense, yet they bristled with fear, knowing there was a good chance that their journey to safety could abruptly end at the hands of a Mexican or US border guard ruthlessly sending them away.

    What more will it take?

    That question was on my mind as Valquiria, an asylum-seeker from Brazil, sobbed while talking to us of the pain of more than ten months of being forcibly separated from her young son, taken from her just 24 hours after they arrived at the El Paso border. She has not seen him since. And even though Valquiria’s plight has been featured in an Amnesty International report and global Urgent Action, immigration authorities continue to refuse her the humanitarian release from custody that would reunite her with 7-year-old Abel.

    What more will it take?

    That question was on my mind as a I spoke with 16-year-old Carlos from Honduras, who had arrived in Tijuana with last year’s Migrants Caravan, but has been fearful ever since of taking the next step of trying to make an asylum claim with US officials. He worries about the risk that he would be turned away and lose the minimal sense of safety he has at the migrants shelter that presently offers him a bed at night.

    What more will it take?

    That question was on my mind yesterday as I heard Claudia’s incredible account of the arduous and dangerous 7-month journey she took with her husband from their home in Cuba through 11 countries to reach the border at El Paso. Claudia, now 6 ½ months pregnant, was hopeful that their number on the list was going to come up the next day and it would be their turn to cross the border. I could not help but be buoyed by her optimism. But my heart sank today when reports emerged of several Cubans already in immigration detention in El Paso who have felt such despair at their conditions that they have resorted to a hunger strike and may soon be force-fed by authorities. Will anything better await Claudia?

    The list of adjectives that our delegation kept turning to in an effort to describe the human rights crisis on the US/Mexico frontier grew long: cruel, arbitrary, unlawful, punitive, harsh, abusive, secretive, unaccountable and, simply, mean.

    Never, anywhere, did I hear an account that even remotely brought to mind the word that Canada continues to hold on to in describing refugee protection in the United States: safe. Not even close.

    Throughout the week I was humbled to meet with courageous and dedicated activists, lawyers, social workers and other concerned advocates who are engaged in a phenomenal struggle for rights and justice, on both sides of this border. They responded in anguished disbelief when I told them of Canada’s insistence that the United States is safe for refugees.

    In fact, it is increasingly not even safe for these human rights defenders themselves, many of whom regularly face growing levels of harassment, intimidation, obstruction and threats from both US and Mexican officials.

    We even experienced that ourselves, when our group was threatened with arrest while accompanying the three Honduran teens to the border. We had broken no laws.

    And on two separate occasions while crossing back into the United States, members of our Amnesty International delegation were aggressively questioned by border guards about posters and other materials we were carrying, apparently because of their radical and subversive messages about protecting families and welcoming refugees.

    During this journey along the southern US border, my heart and mind repeatedly turned to the northern border. And what I felt was a sense of disgrace that Canada continues to enforce the Canada/US Safe Third Country Agreement and maintain the absurd fiction that the United States has a robust asylum system (as I have heard Canadian officials describe it).

    Amnesty senior leadership at Mexico USA border wall

    During this journey along the southern US border, my heart and mind repeatedly turned to the northern border. And what I felt was a sense of disgrace that Canada continues to enforce the Canada/US Safe Third Country Agreement and maintain the absurd fiction that the United States has a robust asylum system (as I have heard Canadian officials describe it).

    That means refugees in the United States, wanting and needing to access refugee protection in Canada, have had to resort to irregular and potentially dangerous border crossings to get here.

    That means that politicians and commentators have spun an inflammatory and untrue narrative of Canada facing waves of illegal migrants sweeping across the border from the United States.

    And it means that the Canadian government has remained entirely and completely silent as this wrenching siege against the rights, safety and dignity of refugees and migrants in the United States has grown more insidious and sinister.

    I think of the conviction of the three Honduran teenagers as I watched them walk through the turnstile and across the border knowing that they almost certainly face more torment and uncertainty at the hands of US authorities. I think of Valquiria’s deep well of sadness but also her steadfast conviction that she must speak out if these injustices are to be exposed and addressed.

    And I demand that same conviction from Canada

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