ALL ABOUT RIGHTS BACK AT YOU
The struggle for human rights shapes news around the globe. Join Amnesty International, one of Canada’s largest human rights organizations, and untangle the chaos of your newsfeed. Want to hear compelling stories from people who fight back? Learn more about the systems that define our world? Or hang out with people who believe a better world is possible for everyone? Rights Back at You features stories from frontline activists that cut right to the heart of human rights—being human.
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Ep.5-Access Denied – Tech at the Border
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Content Note: This episode mentions children in immigration detention and residential schools.
Daniella: Today borders how they are both a technology and an institution. We’ll talk about how they keep people out, keep people in and play a massive role in decisions about people’s lives today, just as they have throughout history. In this episode, we learn how borders first came to exist. How they’ve been used when it comes to race and what happens when biometric technologies or I can help sort people into categories and make policing borders easier.
Everyone deserves a safe home. But the system that decides who gets to stay in Canada isn’t exactly fair. It sets up “good” immigrants versus “bad” immigrants. Black and brown people are placed under intense scrutiny for just trying to build a better life.
I’m Daniella Barreto and this is Rights Back at You, Amnesty International Canada’s human rights podcast. A border isn’t just a line on paper. Borders control what kind of education you get, if your health care is free or not, whether you’re safe to be openly queer or trans, or whether you go to sleep wondering if you’ll get to wake up in the morning. Even though borders are made up, lines drawn in the dirt, they determine so much about our lives. Here is author and activist Harsha Walia:
Harsha: Borders are completely connected to the ways in which European Empire specifically literally drew lines across entire continents. The partition of Africa, for example, in the late 1800s, is this kind of cliché, but completely real moment where a bunch of European colonizers sat around a room and divvied up the African continent. Right? And then drew up artificial lines.
Daniella: Violent white supremacy and land theft is a familiar story to anyone who’s experienced colonization. South Africa is well known for its history of apartheid, a system of enforced segregation. It included a pass system to surveil and restrict Black people to certain areas, keeping them out of white areas.
In 1960, during the Sharpeville massacre, police opened fire and 69 black protesters were shot dead. Many more were injured.
Palestine has been under decades of apartheid oppression since Israel was created in 1948. The Israeli government with police and the military has maintained a massive system of surveillance, segregation and dispossession, privileging Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians.
Canada also had a pass system. In the late 1800s, Canada surveilled and policed Indigenous Peoples’ movements to prevent large gatherings, suppress rebellion and stop parents from accessing their children who had been taken away to residential schools.
South Africa’s laws reflected Canada’s treatment of Indigenous populations, including racist legislation like the Indian Act that still exists today.
Like I’ve said 100 times in this series. None of this is new. Technology just makes surveillance and policing easier and helps to maintain centuries-old systems of oppression. Watching people in order to control them is a key element of the colonial playbook. Borders to restrict movement are part of that technology.
Daniella: I immigrated to Canada in 2003. My family is from Zimbabwe, a country just above South Africa that was colonized by the British in the late 1800s. Prior to independence in 1980, Zimbabwe was called “Rhodesia” after the colonizer Cecil John Rhodes. (This is the same Rhodes that the Rhodes Must Fall movement has in his crosshairs.) He basically decided the region was his diamond and mineral mining property and founded a territory where white people could prosper and Black people were brutally repressed. British rule seized land and extracted untold wealth from Zimbabwe, leaving destruction in its path, as happened with many African countries after independence.
In the early 2000s, like most families who could, mine fled the corruption, violence and dictatorship of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. As a child, I remember waiting in lines for bread, milk and sitting in an oven of a car for hours on end, just for a rationed amount of fuel. Inflation was astronomical and money became worthless. People carted billions of dollars of Zimbabwe banknotes around to still not be able to afford basic necessities. After we crossed oceans for a better life, I remember feeling betrayed by the way Canada presents itself to the rest of the world. To us, Canada was this wonderful land of opportunity and justice. I was only 12 years old, but understanding the horrors Canada kept in its closet was shocking.
Joy: Canada absolutely is a PR machine. And I mean what you describe as your own personal shock, like it’s not uncommon, right?
Daniella: This is Joy Henderson, an Afro-Indigenous person who lives in Scarborough, Ontario.
Joy: And so a lot of people come to Canada thinking, “Oh, it’s Canada, it’s multicultural, it’s lovely, blah, blah, blah”. And then once they hear the other side of the story, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is terrible”.
Daniella: As a result of the violent land theft and policing of Indigenous Peoples, borders were artificially drawn across so called North America.
Joy: It’s funny, right? Because my nation, Lakota Nation, spans that arbitrary line that delineates the US and Canada. I am Lakota “American”, quote unquote. Right, because that’s where my dad came from, the other side of that border. But am I a Lakota Canadian? I cannot get status as a Lakota person in Canada because that’s where my dad is from, on the other side of that arbitrary line, and that’s really quite confusing.
Daniella: Despite touting itself as a multicultural nation of immigrants. Canada has not always wanted just any immigrant. There’s a long history of exclusion and preference for some kinds of immigrants over others. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, the Chinese Head Tax was a law to restrict Chinese people from coming to Canada by getting them to pay an additional fee to enter the country. Black people were one of the groups deemed unsuitable for Canada’s climate and could be denied entry to the country. There was even an attempt to explicitly ban Black people from entering Canada in 1911. In 1914, the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying mostly Sikh people from India, was turned away and its passengers denied entry to Canada. Similarly, Jewish people aboard a ship who were fleeing persecution in 1939 were also turned away. Many later died in Nazi concentration camps. White Canadians were terrified of being overrun by people who weren’t white. This fear still exists today.
Canada’s Migrant workers program is often used as an example of this discrimination. Workers from Mexico, Jamaica and the Philippines, for instance, are deemed worthy enough to grow and pick our food or take care of our children, but not worthy enough to receive immigration status. This means they’re often threatened with deportation, kept in low wage work and denied access to Canada’s universal health care system, even if they’re injured on the job. The Canadian government was heavily criticized for prioritizing Ukrainian refugees entry into Canada, while racialized people experiencing other equally devastating wars were not given the same treatment. Everyone has the right to seek safety in Canada. We love to be smug and say that “at least it’s not the United States” whenever issues of systemic racism come up but…
Harsha: It is so important for Canadians to realize that it’s so easy for people to point their fingers and be like Trump and his border wall. And he’s so racist and he’s a white supremacist. But that’s literally what Canada has been doing for at least the past few decades, with very little knowledge or outcry in this country against it.
Daniella: It’s important to note for this episode and the series in general that while the impacts of racism are very real, race itself is a made up concept. There are not different races of humans, biologically speaking. Homo sapiens are Homo sapiens. But the meaning we’ve applied to physical traits means that racism and its impacts are extreme enough to determine who lives and who dies. Historical ideas about who is truly welcomed in Canada were tied to eugenics and the explicit desire from colonizers like John A. MacDonald for Canada to remain a white state. Eugenics is the idea that different races have immutable differences in characteristics in things like intelligence, work ethic or sexuality. It’s pseudoscience, but some of its ideas persist, including the idea that disabled people or people who don’t fit the ideals of white able bodied society are a hindrance to humanity. A lot of immigration policy was constructed to keep out “undesirables” from Canada.
Harsha: Black migrants, brown migrants, queer and disabled migrants, trans migrants, poor people, single mothers, sex workers, people who use substances. The Chinese Exclusion Act, for example. Even if today we think like, Oh, there’s no overtly racist or overtly oppressive laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, here in the Northwest, the same ideologies still permeate, right?
Daniella: Many types of exclusionary policies live on today in various forms, and they overlap with the type of policing we’ve discussed in previous episodes in this series.
Harsha: And so when Black migrants in particular are subjected to the policing system through surveillance, through incarceration, through arrest, because of a fundamentally anti-black policing system that basically places Black migrants in particular into the deportation pipeline, when you’re more likely to be arrested, when you are more likely to be incarcerated, you then are more likely to face these fundamentally unjust deportation proceedings. It funnels particular categories of people to expulsion every year.
Daniella: Canada has a target for the number of immigrants to bring in. In 2022, it was about 400,000 or 1% of our population. People are selected in a few different categories, including economic contributions, humanitarian needs and reuniting families. Immigration detention is a human rights disaster in Canada. The system frames people seeking safety or a better life as threats who need to be locked up. They’re often jailed with incarcerated people in provincial prisons. Even when people aren’t locked up, they’re often subject to invasive surveillance and reporting to the Canadian Border Services Agency or the CBSA. It’s the only law enforcement agency without an independent oversight body. Immigration detention is also indefinite and arbitrary. Sometimes people wait under surveillance and restrictive confinement for years on end. The longest time someone was detained was 11 years. It takes a physical, mental and emotional toll to be locked up with no clear end date. It might be encouraging to know that there are just a few immigration detention centres in Canada. There are only three…
Harsha: Which doesn’t in any way mean there’s not a lot of immigration detention. It just means migrant detainees are literally incarcerated in provincial prisons.
Daniella: Between April 2019 and March 2020, Canada detained almost 9000 people. Their ages ranged from 15 to 83, teenagers to grandparents. About one in five of them were put in provincial prisons without charge. During that same time period, 138 kids were also put in detention with their parents. 73 of them were under the age of six. The alleged reason kids are also locked up is to keep them with their parents. But many people wonder whether they could be kept with their parents and not be behind bars because it has deep consequences for children’s development. A Black child who was born behind bars in Canada spent the first two years of his life in immigration detention.
Harsha: His first words behind bars were basically prison lingo.
Daniella: According to a Maclean’s article, those first words were radio check, something guards say when they’re changing shifts. Canada does a really good job of telling the world it welcomes refugees. But in 2002, Canada and the United States signed the Safe Third Country agreement.
Harsha: It’s an agreement that says that if any person seeking asylum, with some minor exceptions, happens to travel or transit through the United States, they cannot claim asylum in Canada.
Daniella: It’s really hard to travel to Canada without stopping in the States.
Harsha: Canada’s geography is such is that you’re not getting a direct flight, for example, to Canada without going through the United States, particularly, of course, as someone who is a refugee.
Daniella: Flying to Canada directly can be prohibitively expensive. And visas just aren’t easy to get for a lot of people, especially if you’re leaving somewhere in a hurry. Under international law, seeking asylum is a fundamental human right that cannot be denied. But you can create a loophole if you block people from claiming asylum at official points of entry to Canada. This is why a lot of people make the incredibly dangerous trek over Canada’s land border at informal points of entry to claim asylum. The Safe Third Country Agreement doesn’t apply if you cross informally. Sometimes people and their children are injured or die trying to cross borders. They’ve decided it’s worth the risk. In January 2022, a family of four from India were found frozen to death at the Canada-U.S. border. In 2016, after being denied asylum in the US, two Ghanaian refugees entered Canada at an irregular crossing as a last ditch effort. One told the media he was seeking asylum due to his sexuality. It’s illegal to be queer in Ghana. Both men lost most of their fingers due to frostbite.
Harsha: The kind of liberal, multicultural states of which Canada imagines itself in that kind of “welcome refugees” rhetoric. They respond by saying, “Oh, this is a tragedy. We’re so sad, you know, our hearts are broken. We are going to crack down on the traffickers”. And of course, the biggest problem with that is that hypocrisy, right? Of the only reason people are resorting to increasingly unsafe methods of migration is because nation states have made it impossible for people to migrate safely.
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Daniella: There are other ways to get into Canada, including the points based immigration system – how my family got here. Basically, you’re assigned points for your profession, your education, skills, language and more. While the system has allowed many people into the country, it still decides who is a better immigrant than others. Based on what you bring to the table that Canada finds valuable. Here’s Jamie Duncan, a researcher at the University of Toronto who studies borders and technology.
Jamie: We’ve wrapped it in this rhetoric of multiculturalism, but liberal multiculturalism, people who deserve to come here regardless of the colour of their skin, can come to Canada and build their lives. But the points based system is obviously pretty discriminatory on a class basis and by correlation along intersections of race and gender and sexuality.
Daniella: Jamie has been looking into the use of artificial intelligence by the CBSA at the border.
Jamie: I think that a really sort of easy way to understand the concept behind this is the spam filter in your email. Whoever runs your email has a list of things that they would associate with spam email and they want to filter it out. And so they apply what’s called a classifier algorithm that has learned to identify all of these characteristics of spam email. So you only get the desirable emails. Of course, the really important difference here is that people aren’t spam email, and if your spam email filter is wrong, you might miss in the worst case, like an important document or a job opportunity or something like that. But if and when these algorithms misbehave or provide false insights at the border, it really, really impacts people’s lives.
Daniella: Agencies that employ algorithms and artificial intelligence tend to wrap it in the rhetoric of being super scientific and evidence based. Jamie says that while the math alone often checks out, that doesn’t mean anything if it’s founded on myths and stereotypes and hypotheticals. Racial profiling is often flagrant at the border.
Jamie: They can collect all of these different kinds of intelligence, and they have these scenarios which are literally like imagined possibilities. They say, like this enforcement situation happened one time where somebody flew through Turkey and then ended up as a foreign fighter in Syria. And so now we’re going to take all of these data points that we have about that person. They’re theorizing about what other people might do and who they might be. It’s this really interesting contrast between the science and then the fiction.
Daniella: CBSA officers assign risk assessments to detainees based on a variety of factors, but they’re not transparent. It’s hard to know why one person was assigned a particular score and someone else wasn’t. The same goes for automated risk assessments. Countries, including Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand share all this data at the border. A denial at one border can affect admissibility into others.
Jamie: These countries justify their partnership by their shared commitment to human rights and the rule of law. In reality, and if we look back, what they share is a common history of indigenous dispossession and white supremacy. I think that we share a lot of the common problems of discrimination at our borders, and we’re working together to make it more efficient.
Daniella: He tells me a story about the CBSA zooming in on someone named Olajide Ogunye. Olajide had lived in Canada since the 1990s and had been a citizen since 2006. CBSA officers were doing a sweep of the area, searched his home and didn’t believe he was who he said he was. Even with citizenship documents and his passport.
Jamie: They were convinced that he was a Nigerian asylum applicant from the nineties who had failed. He’d been living in Canada for years, had a job, passport, health card, all of the things.
Daniella: They said, his fingerprints matched someone else’s. Despite what crime shows will have us believe, fingerprint matching can be incorrect. And like any, biometric identification is not always accurate or reliable. It’s subject to different kinds of bias, and there’s little standardisation about how similar a fingerprint needs to be before it’s declared to be the same.
Jamie: And of course, Olajide wasn’t that person.
Daniella: He’s suing the CBSA.
Jamie: He spent eight months in immigration detention because his official documents weren’t good enough and the testimony of his friends and family weren’t good enough. That is like the peak of automation bias right there.
Daniella: Automation bias is the idea that people are likely to over rely on what automated scoring systems or other measurements say. This bias may also have contributed to the Absa’s intention to strip two Somali women of refugee status in 2020. The CBSA relied partly on facial recognition to determine that they weren’t who they said they were. A Canadian court said that wasn’t good enough and reinstated their status as refugees in Canada. It’s not uncommon for people to lean towards answers. A computer spits out.
Jamie: CBSA officers are likely to over rely on these scores. They’re likely to over rely on fingerprint matches, which further adds a sort of barrier to accountability because they can just say, oh, the computer set to do this. Like I was just relying on the risk scores that the CBSA provided to me. And that was the basis of my decision over which I have the sole discretion to make. Right? So, like, it forms this kind of loop of technology and human decision making that’s really hard to intervene in.
Daniella: I talked to one more person for this episode about how this colonial backdrop and often racist decision making further intersects with technology. We reached her in Greece, where she’s studying the impacts of technology on people in refugee camps. She’s a researcher and author of a Citizen Lab report called Bots at the Gate on AI at the Border.
Petra: My name is Petra Molnar. I’m a lawyer, an anthropologist, and I’m the associate director of the Refugee Law Lab at York University. I look at why people are sometimes forced to flee or migrate or seek refugee status, and technology is sometimes presented as this kind of Band-Aid solution to really complex societal problems. But oftentimes this kind of turn to technical solutions or techno solution ism really obscures the kind of vast power differentials that are present in our world. And it’s really a political kind of project and a political exercise. And really when you start kind of introducing these technical, so called solutions into the migration space, we really see how kind of far reaching the human rights impacts actually are.
Daniella: Petra says she’s seen people in refugee camps getting their irises scanned in exchange for weekly rations of food in Greece. That’s not a real choice.
Petra: This isn’t just kind of a theoretical conversation that we’re having. These technologies are embodied. They are felt in specific ways. So what is this really doing to this complicated space of migration and kind of border decision making? The human rights impacts really are quite vast. Oftentimes the border and the immigration space is used as a test bed or a laboratory or testing ground, as I’ve called it in my work, because it’s a perfect place to play around with what technologies can look like because the regulatory space is already really weak. We’re talking about immigration and refugee decision making and border enforcement, which is inherently legally structured to be very opaque. And discretionary decision makers have a lot of leeway already without even involving technology or automating certain aspects of it. So it’s the perfect laboratory for states to play around with technology without having to be accountable or even with oversight over what’s happening. Historically, marginalized communities are kind of these guinea pigs or test subjects when it comes to tech. And the concern then is, of course, that it will be rolled out kind of much broader across wider swaths of society.
Daniella: So now what?
Petra: I think Canada has a really unique role to play, and I think it’s a tricky one too, because I feel like the government is wanting to position itself both kind of as an AI or a technology leader, but also as a leader in human rights. But oftentimes those two things are sometimes mutually exclusive because you really have to take a strong stance on some of these technologies that can be quite sharp or violent. Are we really okay with having this kind of technology in our societies? And if not, how can we really stand up against this kind of largely privatized and private sector led space that is making these decisions for us and about us largely to satisfy the bottom line and to make big money in the development of big tech and really think about can we draw some red lines around the development of really harmful technologies, for example, in the migration and border space, but also in carceral type technologies or predictive policing or automated weapons in war? I mean, these are all live conversations that are being had, but I really feel like we need to move much further along to really get at the kind of impacts that this tech is having.
Daniella: Being on the receiving end of invasive government and police surveillance, people coming to Canada often feel unable or unwilling to risk challenging some of these systems. It’s Canadian’s job to speak up about the violence of the immigration system and the ways technology further oppresses people seeking safety. For uncountable valid reasons. Many immigrants and refugees just want to keep their heads down, not get into trouble, and not get involved in issues where they need to challenge the government. But of course, immigrants are all different coming here from different classes and holding different worldviews. Some people will come here, make the life they want, and perhaps aspire to things that signify success in a white context: a house, a car, a middle management job and Canadian born children, and not care who they step on to get there, or whether they’re reinforcing the hierarchy that oppresses Indigenous peoples. Some who come to Canada have anti-Black notions already. This is how folks who aren’t white can also uphold white supremacy. And while Joy tells me many Indigenous people want to welcome people fleeing persecution or violence in other parts of the world.
Joy: I guess my hesitation is when people come and they just buy into the whole colonial Canada’s a multicultural country, “I pulled myself up by the bootstraps. Why can’t you?” And not understanding what Canada stands on, which is the bodies, the labor, the backs of Black and Indigenous people and has for the last several centuries. And so there’s that relationship and that responsibility that people who have immigrated to Canada need to take up to write and say, “Oh my gosh, I recognize that this is currently happening is just what it stands on and that there is a certain level of privilege that I have to not be part of that, but also that commitment to also help dismantling that too.” And that’s generally what I hope and look for. And I mean, many people who immigrate to Canada are like, “yes, let’s tear this down. I’m like, my man. Let’s do this right”.
Daniella: Some immigrants do come here and immediately recognize the echoes of global colonialism. The similarities between the way their countries were colonized and how Canada subjugates Indigenous Peoples. The violence and horrors of residential schools and the intergenerational traumas they also went through. The necessity to support Indigenous Peoples in their demands for truth and justice. They understand that the only way out of the oppression of white supremacy, surveillance and colonialism is together.
Amnesty Canada and Human Rights Watch released a report in 2021 detailing the human rights violations and major mental health impacts of Canadian immigration detention. In the last few months, British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia have all agreed to stop using provincial prisons for immigration detention, in large part due to massive grassroots organizing over decades. Amnesty and other human rights organizations challenge the Safe Third Country Agreement before the Supreme Court of Canada on October 6th, 2022. The decision will come out in a few months. You can learn more about how to fight against the safe Third Country agreement on our website at Amnesty.ca/rightsbackatyou.
Well, everyone. That’s it for the final episode of this series. Thank you for sticking with me, trusting me to guide you through just a glimpse of the human rights struggles black people have been having. Long before Amnesty Canada was listening.
Thank you for honouring and holding the stories and work of incredible communities of resistance and power. You can join them. There are resources and links on our website for more information about every episode. If you liked this episode or this series, share it with a friend. Until next time, I’m Daniella Barreto and this has been Rights Back at You, Amnesty International Canada’s human rights podcast.
Daniella: This episode was produced by me, Daniella Barreto and Serisha Iyar. Written and hosted by me. Story Editing, Sound Design and Post-production Work by Katie Jensen at Vocal Fry Studios. Theme Music by Produced by Youth. Podcast Artwork by Sasha Mbabazi. And a very special thank you to Leon Liberman, Adjua Akinwumi and Serisha Iyar for their invaluable feedback during this process.
Produced, written, and hosted by Daniella Barreto. Co-produced by Serisha Iyar. Story editing, sound design, and post-production work by Katie Jensen at Vocal Fry Studios. Theme music by Produced by Youth. Artwork by Sasha Mbabazi.
A special thank you to Leon Liberman, Adjua Akinwumi and Serisha Iyar.
Canada: End the Safe Third Country Agreement – Amnesty International Canada
Canada: Leading human rights groups challenge Safe Third Country Agreement at Supreme Court – Amnesty International Canada
REPORT – Canada: Abuse, Discrimination in Immigration Detention – Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Canada
BOOK – Harsha Walia “Border and Rule”
REPORT – Bots at the Gate: a human rights analysis of automated decision-making in Canada’s immigration and refugee system – Petra Molnar
Canadian Council for Refugees – Safe Third Country Agreement
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